San Francisco 49ers Fantasy Football Preview: Is a WR1 season in the works for Brandon Aiyuk?

2022 Stats

Points per game: 26.6 (6th)
Total yards per game: 365.6 (5th)
Plays per game: 61 (23rd)
Pass attempts + sacks per game: 31.5 (26th)
Dropback EPA per play: .171 (4th)
Rush attempts per game: 29.7 (9th)
Rush EPA per play: -0.021 (11th)

Coaching staff

Kyle Shanahan enters another year at the helm of the uber-efficient Niners offense, this time without former defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who is now the head coach of the Texans. In Ryans' place will be Steve Wilks, who in 2022 served as Carolina’s interim head coach. Wilks has also served as defensive coordinator for the Browns and head coach for the Cardinals.

Shanahan hired Klint Kubiak, another son of a former NFL head coach, as San Francisco’s passing game specialist. Kubiak was the Vikings’ offensive coordinator for three seasons before spending 2022 with the Broncos as a passing game specialist.

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The team made a range of defensive hires this offseason, including Nick Sorensen as the defensive passing game specialist and Daniel Bullocks as the new defensive backs coach. Bullocks and Sorensen will head a 49ers secondary graded by Pro Football Focus as 2022’s fourth-best coverage unit.

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Passing offense

QB: Brock Purdy, Sam Darnold, Trey Lance
WR: Deebo Samuel, Ray Ray McCloud
WR: Brandon Aiyuk, Danny Gray
WR: Jauan Jennings, Chris Conley
TE: George Kittle, Cameron Latu, Ross Dwelley

Brock Purdy was a revelation for the Niners after he was forced into action in Week 13 against Miami. The 2022 final-round draft pick proved to be exactly what Shanahan looks for in a quarterback: someone who can make accurate, short throws to pass-catchers on the run. Only the Steelers and Lions had higher dropback EPAs than the 49ers over the season’s final six weeks. Purdy — who demonstrated an ability to scramble and improvise that Jimmy Garropolo never had in San Francisco — was 14th in completion rate over expected from Week 13 to Week 18. Notably, and quite interestingly, Sam Darnold led the NFL in completion rate over expected in that span as quarterback in Carolina.

Sam Darnold headshot
Sam Darnold
QB - MIN - #14
2022 - 2023 season
Comp Pct

Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have been clear that Purdy will be the team’s starter when he’s fully recovered from the UCL injury he sustained in last year’s NFC title game loss to the Eagles. It makes sense: Purdy is the perfect Shanahan QB, and he won over his teammates in short order in December.

That doesn’t mean Purdy will be a full go for Week 1, however. His recovery timetable butts up against the start of the regular season, forcing the Niners to make difficult decisions if Purdy has to sit for a week or three before taking over the offense. There has been some buzz about Trey Lance improving as a passer this offseason, but every indication points to 49ers brass being completely out on the 2021 first-rounder. The team is two months removed from desperately seeking a trade partner for Lance, who has been miserable in his limited NFL playing time.

Lance doesn’t do what Shanny wants him to do; that’s all that matters.

Enter Darnold, a laughingstock entering last season with the Panthers after flaming out with the worst organization in pro sports, the Jets. Darnold, who in March signed a one-year deal worth $4.5 million, should be considered the favorite to start Week 1 if Purdy is still recovering from his elbow issue. Darnold, still only 26, has taken snaps over Lance through most of the offseason, and ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports that Darnold “has the edge” over Lance going into training camp. This makes Darnold a decent late-round flier in SuperFlex formats in the unlikely scenario that he gets the Week 1 nod and performs well enough for Shanahan to stick with the hot hand — something Shanny has done in past seasons.

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Deebo Samuel, with questions swirling about his conditioning last season and entering this season, had a down year in 2022, thanks to natural touchdown regression and Christian McCaffrey’s emergence as the Niners’ primary short-area pass-catcher. Samuel’s targets, receptions and yardage dropped after the team acquired CMC in a midseason trade with Carolina. His rushing opportunity — especially in the red and green zones — largely dried up in the McCaffrey-centered Niners offense. It was a major knock on Samuel’s fantasy value — one that is partly reflected in his redraft ADP this summer. He’s not a bad pick, especially for Zero RB purposes, but the upside we saw from Samuel in 2021 is no longer there as long as CMC is upright and healthy.

Brandon Aiyuk headshot
Brandon Aiyuk
WR - SF - #11
2022 - 2023 season

Brandon Aiyuk came on last season as a boundary-dominating wideout after serving extended sentences in Shanahan’s doghouse the previous two seasons. He had his first 1,000-yard season and finished 21st in yards per route run among wide receivers, just behind Tee Higgins. Playing about a quarter of his snaps from the slot, Aiyuk was a serious mismatch for opposing secondaries and should be considered the team’s No. 1 receiver going into 2023. Offseason reports on Aiyuk’s development have been nothing short of tantalizing. Drafting Aiyuk as your WR2 or WR3 should be considered a luxury this summer. The run-heavy and ultra-conservative nature of the team’s offense, however, will naturally lead to some duds for Aiyuk and the rest of the Niners pass-catchers.

I take no pleasure in reporting that George Kittle remains an excellent blocker and will continue to be deployed as a road paver for Shanny’s run-first offense. Kittle in 2022 had the 10th-most tight end targets and ran the eighth-most tight end pass routes, though his pass-game usage remains woefully short of where most fantasy managers would want it to be. Luckily, his redraft ADP reflects that Kittle is a more boom-bust option than other elite fantasy tight ends. He’s certainly someone to target in redraft if his ADP slips. He was fifth in tight end yards per route run last season, one year after leading all tight ends in that category.

We are begging Shanahan to let Kittle cook.

Rushing offense

RB: Christian McCaffrey, Elijah Mitchell, Jordan Mason, Tyron Davis-Price
OL (L-R): Trent Williams, Aaron Banks, Jake Brendel, Spencer Burford, Colton McKivitz

Shanahan’s maddeningly efficient run game got even better after the Niners acquired McCaffrey from the Panthers in October 2022. Although the 49ers had the league’s 11th-highest rush EPA on the season, they were third in rush EPA during CMC’s 11 games with the team. Only six teams had a higher rushing success rate during that stretch.

Christian McCaffrey headshot
Christian McCaffrey
RB - SF - #23
2022 - 2023 season

McCaffrey was the overall RB1 in fantasy during his 11 games with San Francisco, thanks largely to a steady diet of targets that helped counter a shared rushing load with Elijah Mitchell. McCaffrey saw at least seven targets in six of his 11 games in Shanahan’s system, continuing his PPR domination as the game’s premiere pass-catching running back. He hogged 82% of the San Francisco backfield's high-value touches (catches and touches inside the 10). After leading all backs in yards per route run in 2021, McCaffrey finished third in YPRR in 2022. He should be a top-three pick in every format this summer.

Mitchell has massive contingency value with a smattering of every-week appeal for fantasy drafters who go heavy on receivers early on and seek RB values in the middle and late rounds. Mitchell had at least eight rushes — and as many as 18 carries — in three games with McCaffrey sharing the backfield before an injury sidelined him for the remainder of the regular season. Dependably efficient and a good fit for the Shanahan rushing attack, Mitchell would instantly become a top-12 fantasy back if McCaffrey were to miss time this season. He’ll be a candidate for double-digit carries when the 49ers have game script on their side, too.

Jordan Mason would likely be the Niners’ top back if both Mitchell and CMC were to go down to injury in 2023. As a rookie in 2022, Mason averaged 6 yards per carry on 43 rushes. Niners coaches talked up Mason as an excellent fit for the team’s rushing scheme last offseason. That matters quite a bit on a Shanahan-coached team.

Win total

Win Over/Under: 11.5

If Purdy were guaranteed to be ready to roll for Week 1, I would take the over on the team’s wins. I’m going to hedge toward the under, if just barely, because of the various QB questions swirling around the 49ers. The team’s tough-as-nails defense, even without DeMeco Ryans, should smooth over whatever struggles the team has on offense with or without Purdy under center.

This could all look silly come December and January, as the 49ers have the league’s fifth-easiest strength of schedule, per Sharp Football Analysis.