Last year, the San Francisco 49ers came so close to reaching the franchise's sixth Super Bowl appearance. Led by rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh, the Niners still had a remarkable 13-3 season. While the NFL has become a pass-happy league, San Francisco relied on an old-school mentality of playing physical on both sides of the ball. For the most part that formula worked, but with their rookies and free-agent pickups, the Niners should be more explosive offensively. The Niners caught everyone by surprise last season, but they are out to prove that 2011 was no fluke.
For the first time in his eight-year career, Alex Smith will return to the same offensive system that he ran the previous year. Last season Smith only threw for 17 touchdowns, but in his defense, the offense lacked playmakers with the exception of Frank Gore and Vernon Davis. However, the offense made several additions at wide receiver and running back to help out their quarterback. While that is a positive, the Niners will continue to play conservatively and rely on their defense. Smith's job is to protect the ball and move the chains. He could take more shots downfield now that he has Randy Moss and Mario Manningham at his disposal, but don't expect a dramatic increase in his overall production.
After carrying the ball 282 times last season, the Niners will look to lighten Gore's workload with the additions of Brandon Jacobs and rookie LaMichael James. With those factors working against him, it will be difficult for Gore to match 2011's totals of 1,211 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in a crowded backfield. If Jacobs' knee injury is not too serious, he could be a contributor in short-yardage and goal-line situations. He is the biggest block standing in the way of Gore's production. Still, Gore is the Niners' best and most dependable player, so he can be drafted as a No. 2 fantasy running back. Taken in the second round of April's draft, the Niners will do everything they can to include the lightning quick James in their weekly game plan. He'll see a small handful of touches, but not enough to hurt Gore's value or contribute in fantasy. Should Gore sustain an injury, Kendall Hunter would be the favorite to start and receive the majority of touches. He is versatile and showed some promise last season as a rookie. Hunter is the preferred option if you are in need of a handcuff to Gore.
Wide Receivers and Tight End
The biggest area of improvement has come from the receiving group where the Niners have added Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and rookies A.J. Jenkins and Chris Owusu. Fourth-year wideout Michael Crabtree and kick return specialist Ted Ginn are also back. That depth is encouraging for the team, but it only clouds the picture for fantasy owners. Every receiver has a role, so it will be a challenge for one of them to gain separation from the rest of the pack. Looking at the situation from a fantasy perspective, the competition is really between Moss, Manningham and Crabtree. Moss is by far the oldest, but he has the most experience and can put up a tremendous stat line when playing at full speed. He last played in 2010 where he suited up for three different teams in the same season. Does he have one more good year left at age 35? Manningham played well in last season's playoffs, recording three touchdowns to go along with a clutch 38-yard sideline grab in the Super Bowl. But his role as a deep threat limits his consistency, especially on a run-oriented team like the Niners. Of the three, Crabtree may be the safest pick. He does not possess Moss' or Manningham's speed, but he is big enough to work the middle of the field. Playing through a foot injury last year, he still managed 72 receptions for 874 yards and four scores. Expect slight improvements now that defenses cannot solely focus on stopping him. On the other hand, he'll have to fight for targets which limits him to a fantasy reserve. Moss and Manningham are also reserve options heading into 2012.
Vernon Davis will likely be the team's most consistent receiving option. He is a big target and serves as a premier safety valve for Smith. However, his decline in yardage and touchdowns over the past three seasons are a bit of a concern. If his numbers took a hit last year as the Niners' primary receiver, how will he fare with Moss and Manningham in the fold? Davis is no longer a top-five fantasy tight end, but with his talent he's still serviceable.
David Akers was clearly the best fantasy kicker, but some regression is expected if the offense even takes a small step forward. The Niners were ranked 31st in third-down conversion, so Akers benefited from an offense that failed to convert in clutch situations. But given his strong history, Akers should be one of the first kickers off the board.
The Niners defense was a major reason why the team went 13-3. Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Carlos Rogers remain intact and should be an elite defense once again. The Niners finished with the best run defense and were ranked in the top five in points per game and yards per game. Defenses are usually unpredictable from season to season, but with all 11 starters returning, expect another productive performance for 2012.
Travis Chan is a fantasy sports enthusiast and contributor for the Yahoo! Contributor Network. You can follow him on Twitter @Travischan1.
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