The San Francisco 49ers are one of the most talent-bereft teams in all of football. Built on questionable drafting, a reluctance to spend in free agency and crippled by a talent exodus after 2014 never before seen in sports, they stand with one of the least talented rosters in the NFL with a head coach who was run out of town after leading the Eagles to two NFC playoff berths.
While Eagles fans hate Chip Kelly for reviving their franchise and then destroying the same franchise, it was Kelly the GM, not Kelly the coach, who was the downfall of the Eagles. He wrestled roster control from Howie Grossman and then promptly moved all the talented players on the team. Luckily for Kelly, there aren’t that many talented players on the 49ers to move.
An analysis of the 49ers’ fantasy football prospects has to start with Kelly. The Chip Kelly offense is completely different from anything seen in San Francisco in the recent past. Jim Harbaugh, then Jim Tomsula, played a slow-it-down, ball control offense. Kelly plays in a wide open, fast-paced offense. By the bare numbers, the 49ers have averaged just about 20 fantasy points per game since they turned towards the Jims. At their peak, the Niners averaged 25.375 fantasy points per game, but they averaged just under 15, just over 19 and 18 and a half points a game in the seasons surrounding that peak. Last year, they played from behind frequently, and garbage timed their way to just under 24 points per game. The offense didn’t really hum.
Chip Kelly takes over a stuffy offense for the second time in two head coaching roles in the NFL. In the two seasons before Kelly took over, the Eagles averaged just 21.13 points per game. He added ten points per game from the 2011 Eagles to the 2012 Eagles, and built on that for 2013. The lowest four-game rolling average was 20, which Kelly it twice. The team took a step back in 2015, but the baseline is clear: Chip Kelly brings offense. This means that 49ers’ fantasy football options for 2016 should be much more encouraging than they were in 2015. The only question is: who will step up for the 49ers?
Pick your poison (but neither will cost you very much). Early reports as of this weekend are that Blaine Gabbert has the early lead on Colin Kaepernick. Don’t read too much into those reports; Kaepernick is just now recovered from his myriad of offseason surgeries. Kaepernick, unfortunately, may be irreparably broken and in need of a change of scenery. Last season both quarterbacks had eight games started, with Kaepernick performing slightly worse than Gabbert in nearly every statistical category. The problem is that neither one of them performed well. Thanks to scheduling quirks, Gabbert got some soft underbellies to feast on near the end of the season, but when your quarterbacks combine for 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, you’re not doing too great.
What about 2016? Well, whichever quarterback emerges from the fray will be a great sleeper candidate, given that Chip Kelly made Rams #3 quarterback Nick Foles a viable fantasy commodity in the past. Gabbert seems to be the clubhouse leader, and the franchise also seemingly wants him to start (maybe for politics reasons since Kaepernick was Harbaugh’s guy). Still, Gabbert moves faster than people give him credit for, so he may win this thing outright and perform somewhere between Foles and last year’s Sam Bradford. Gabbert provides the narrower range of outcomes, but Kaepernick’s lower floor under Kelly also comes with a higher ceiling under Chip’s offense. Both are virtually free, and neither are worth burning a draft selection outside of the two-quarterback leagues.
This is a crowded backfield behind Carlos Hyde, but Hyde is the back to own in San Francisco. There are a couple of things that detractors will point to that don’t make any sense. First, they will point to his “limited workload” and “inability to stay healthy.” He missed two games at the tail end of 2015 when the whole 49ers’ roster was being put on the IR, and he got a stress fracture in his foot (that he played through for several weeks before going on IR) last season. We aren’t exactly talking Arian Foster with these injuries, here. The second reason for his limited workload was he was running behind Frank Gore on Frank Gore’s 49ers’ Retirement Tour 2015. The second worst kept secret in San Francisco (behind Harbaugh being out the door as soon as the season ended) was that Gore was going to be moving on after the season. Hyde sat behind Gore, so he received just under six carries a game. This is something that is being held against him.
Instead, let’s focus on his career 4.1 yards per carry on 198 rushes in his first two seasons. Let’s focus on his 74% catch percentage (people say he won’t work in the receiving game because he can’t catch, but the RB just never got targets as part of the Harbaugh offensive style). In 2016, he got only 15 targets, but that’s because the Niners were too busy getting blown out to throw it to him. He has definite talent, but there is a lot stacked against him because the Niners are not going to be great. However, their offense should produce more than in years past, and Hyde should be the top back in that field. He’s slotted in as RB14 by ADP, a third-round pick. That’s likely where he ends up, somewhere in the mid-teens. Nothing spectacular, but nothing awful. The opportunities provided by the offense will create plenty of opportunity for Hyde. He’s one of the last non-shared backfield backs to go off the board, so if you get itchy with a shared role, he is your last chance to skip that headache.
Behind him are a bevy of backs, with Kevin Taylor and Shaun Draughn looking to be the early favorites to work in behind Hyde. Reports are that Taylor would be the likely handcuff and that Draughn is set to return as his pass catching back role in 2016. If the offense looks like it is clicking, maybe snag Draughn in PPR leagues. Let’s not forget Darren Sproles in Chip Kelly’s offense.
If it weren’t for Kamar Aiken, Torrey Smith would have the most egregiously incorrect ADP. He is currently the 100th pick, and the 41st receiver off the board, and he will return WR2 numbers Week-in and week-out under Chip Kelly’s offense. I already went into all the reasons why here. Suffice it to say; people are drafting with their gut, and not their brain when it comes to Smith and the 49ers’ offense.
There’s really only one wide receiver behind Smith getting buzz as fantasy viable, and that’s Bruce Ellington. Ellington is a small, quick, shifty receiver who thrives in the slot. These factors combine to make him a trendy sleeper in fantasy football circles. I would pump the brakes a bit. Ellington has been primarily a return man, and even when the 49ers were completely bereft of receiving options last season, he couldn’t make it past noted knucklehead Quinton Patton and onto the field. In two career seasons, he has 31 targets. Ellington is primed to be the return man, and may pop up as the #2 wide receiver to own in San Francisco.
The only problem is that people telling you to draft Ellington are out-thinking themselves. They go in on the quarterbacks, Torrey Smith, eand all the running backs. They bash them and tell you that the Chip Kelly offense and the 49ers are going to be hot garbage, and nobody will be worth drafting, except super sleeper Bruce Ellington. Their opinions do not mesh up. Keep an eye on Ellington, but don’t draft him and let him be a player you’re okay being “wrong” on.
There isn’t another 49ers wide receiver worth a second look, even in the deepest of leagues.
The other trendy super deep sleeper is Vance McDonald. People look at what Chip Kelly did in Philadelphia and think that McDonald, as the de facto TE1 last year after Vernon Davis was traded, would be due for a big boost. There’s one problem: he’s a bust. If I called his hands questionable, that would be an upgrade. He can’t make a catch in traffic and doesn’t fight for extra yards (he tends to sit down in zones). His crisp route running and measurables make him trendy, but the fact that he cannot put his hands around a football and bring it into his possession limits his sleeper upside. There is no reason to draft McDonald, as there are about two dozen tight ends that have greater upside potential. Besides, if there’s a back to own in San Francisco, it’s Garrett Celek. Celek, brother of Brent (former Kelly player) re-signed with the team after the Kelly signing. Celek was given a four-year contract, and McDonald has been left to play out the final year of his. Let the contract situation be your guide if you must gamble on a 49ers tight end.
Phil Dawson is one of two active players who played under the Bill Clinton administration. His power is waning, and his accuracy is iffy. He doesn’t get the opportunities, either. He isn’t a great fantasy commodity at all.
The 49ers defense is without playmakers in the secondary or the pass rush. They are not even worth a backup slot in the fantasy football leagues crazy enough to start two defenses. They had only two players get more than 2.5 sacks last season (Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch had 6.5 each), and they will be without Lynch for the first four games due to suspension. Brooks fell into his sacks, getting two against the terrible Seattle offensive line and 1.5 against a nearly equally bad Lions o-line. The team had nine interceptions last season. There is no reason to own the 49ers’ D/ST at all.
The 2016 49ers are not favored in a single game according to Las Vegas. They will not be a fun team to watch if you have a rooting interest in their win-loss record. Fortunately for fantasy owners, it doesn’t matter if they win or not. The Chip Kelly offense and the lack of talent on defense mean that there will be plenty of offensive opportunities to go around. Betting on a 49er in your fantasy football draft is just that: a gamble. Some are better than others, but most are not worth it at your draft. Given the team upheaval, this is a squad to monitor in preseason to see how they perform under Kelly’s new schemes.