The 49ers do have a fantasy football sleeper in 2012, it's just not Alex Smith. There is no denying that what Jim Harbaugh managed to do with the 49ers and Smith was beyond miraculous. A mediocre team just one year ago at 6-10, Smith and company were possibly one muffed punt away from going to the 49ers' first Super Bowl since the 1994-1995 season.
Now even though Harbaugh was able to whip Smith back into shape, somewhat, I still see a very muddied picture at the quarterback position going into training camp. There is no doubt in my mind that Smith will be re-signed sometime in the offseason. You don't take a team that far in the playoffs only to find yourself looking for a new job a few months afterwards. But I also believe that we will have a full-blown quarterback competition on our hands in training camp.
Which is why I think Colin Kaepernick could have a decent shot at gaining some significant sleeper value this offseason.
Looking back at Smith's numbers during the regular season, he wasn't the type of player you would label a Franchise Quarterback:
- Passing Yards: 3,144 (19th in the league)
- Average Yards Per Completion: 7.1 (17th in the league)
- Passing Yards Per Game: 196.5 (27th in the league)
- Passing Touchdowns: 17 (17th in the league)
So while Smith wasn't the worst quarterback in the league last year, I hardly consider his skills as anything more than adequate. He did save himself by throwing no interceptions during San Francisco's playoff run. But his on-field stats don't tell the real tale.
Per NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell:
One of the attributes that separates high level quarterback play in big games and critical moments is the willingness to make stick throws into smaller windows. Smith did that with confidence against the Saints. In the NFC Championship game, he was hesitant and cautious on throws that were clearly defined. Simply put, Smith left a lot of plays on the field against the Giants. While (Kyle) Williams publicly shouldered the burden of defeat, it was his quarterback who failed to deliver on the promise he had shown a week earlier.
So while Harbaugh might be able to get by with Smith in 2012, making changes at quarterback should be a priority.
I was high on Kaepernick coming out of Nevada and so were the 49ers, who traded up from the No. 45 spot to Denver's No. 36 in exchange for 2011's 45, 108, and 141 draft picks. Much like a younger Michael Vick, Kaepernick wasn't afraid to take the ball and run. He ran for 1000+ yards from 2008-2010 and totaled 53 rushing touchdowns in those years. Besides being an athletic quarterback, he also boasted the strongest arm of all the quarterbacks drafted in his class. Unfortunately, a lower-leg injury and lack of a complete offseason derailed any chances Kaepernick had at the starting job.
Fast forwarding to this offseason, I am already starting to hear rumors that Kaepernick will be given another chance at the starting job. When asked the same question, Matt Maiocco of Comcast Sportsnet said:
Fully expect Alex Smith to return. But also expect the team to give Kaepernick a shot. It's doubtful Harbaugh will have an open quarterback competition, but the best player will play. That's something Harbaugh has said all along -- about every position on the team.
Harbaugh won't flat out say that Smith isn't good enough to start another season, but he also left the door wide open for Kaepernick to push for a chance.
The only thing that is in Kaepernick's way is the off chance that the 49ers bring in another quarterback to compete. I had brought up several times last offseason that Harbough had his eyes on Buccaneers backup Josh Johnson, who Harbaugh coached when both were at the University of San Diego. But if Harbaugh believes in Kaepernick that much and Johnson either re-signs in Tampa or goes elsewhere, Kaepernick has an excellent shot at being a sleeper pick in the later rounds in your 2012 fantasy drafts.