San Francisco was one of just five NFL teams to finish with more rushes than pass attempts in 2013, and only the Niners and Seahawks ran the ball at a rate that approached 55 percent. Most coordinators and coaches would probably prefer to run the football 30-plus times per game, but doing so isn't simply a matter of commitment or offensive philosophy. Generally speaking, when your run/pass mix tilts toward the ground game in this era, then you either have a young/sketchy quarterback behind center — as with the Jets and Bills — or your team is simply all-phases good, and game-flow never becomes unmanageable.
So it is with the Niners. These guys are great. San Francisco pairs an outstanding defense with a punishing ground assault, battering opponents to dust, making deep postseason runs. It's the classic winning formula, basically.
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Unfortunately, it's not a formula that benefits the fantasy community to any significant extent. Niners fans aren't complaining, but the rest of us would kinda like to see what Colin Kaepernick might do if he were actually required to put the ball in the air 550 times.
Last year, San Francisco attempted fewer passes than any team in the league (26.1 per game) and ranked next-to-last in passing yardage (200.6 YPG). Volume and production like that don't pay the fantasy bills. Kaepernick was no damn fun to own last season, not after Week 1. He roasted the Packers in the season opener, going 27-for-39, finishing with 412 yards and three scores. But that was the sell-high moment. Over Kaepernick's next nine games, he topped 200 yards only once and he didn't attempt more than 31 passes in any contest. Again, that's nine straight games of non-passing. These were the yardage totals: 127, 150, 167, 113, 252, 199, 164, 91, 127. Good luck managing around that level of uselessness.
Fantasy-wise, Kaep hit rock bottom in a November loss to Carolina, completing just 11 of 22 throws for 91 yards, rushing four times for 16. Sure, it's nice that there's a running component here (524 yards, 4 TDs), but he couldn't possibly run enough in 2013 to overcome all those 160-yard games. After the strong opener, he didn't top 300 yards again until Week 17, when most leagues are dormant.
Understand, no one here is saying that Kaepernick isn't a highly skilled dual-threat quarterback, a guy with a big arm and excellent wheels. We all like him. Big talent, quality player, protects the football. The issue clearly is volume. He has almost no shot to emerge as a difference-making fantasy asset if he's only throwing the ball 400-420 times per season. The word is we'll see more three-receiver sets from this team, which of course only means the Niners will be running the ball while three receivers are on the field. It's nice that OC Greg Roman has discussed putting the ball in the air more often (it's almost impossible to throw any less), but I'm not willing to accept that on faith. For me, Kaep is not a clear QB1. If I own him anywhere, he'll be part of a platoon.
San Francisco enhanced its receiving corps by adding Stevie Johnson — recently disappointing in an injury-marred season — and Brandon Lloyd, recently a supporting actor in a zombie movie. The team also drafted South Carolina burner Bruce Ellington (Andre's cousin) in Round 4. I can see little reason to get excited about secondary receivers in a run-first offense, so I won't advise you to look beyond Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin. Crabtree is the unrivaled No. 1 for the Niners, dominating targets since Kaepernick ascended to the starting QB role in November 2012. When the upcoming season opens, Crabtree will be 16 months removed from the Achilles injury that made a mess of his 2013 campaign. He is, without question, the surest bet in this receiving corps. During San Francisco's run to Super Bowl XLVII, Crabtree saw double-digit targets from Kaep in six of eight games, playoffs included.
On talent and athleticism, Crabtree can't quite be considered an elite receiver by NFL standards — this isn't Calvin or Julio or AJ — but he's a versatile wideout, a sure-handed and physical player. It wouldn't be much of a surprise if he returned to his 2012 stat-line (85-1105-9) in a contract year. As with all members of this receiving corps, however, Crabtree's ceiling is limited by the team's run/pass habits.
Boldin hauled in 85 balls for 1,179 yards and seven scores last season, taking full advantage of Crabtree's absence, delivering his best statistical year since 2006. Better than 30 percent of his regular season receiving yardage was gained in just two games — in Weeks 1 and 17 — but that should shock no one, considering Kaep's midseason volume. It's overwhelmingly likely that Boldin's numbers will slip in his age-34 season, with Crabtree back at full strength. Think of him as simply a low-impact WR3/4. Ideally, you won't start him.
Davis did not have an unusually busy year in terms of targets (84), ranking just 14th among all tight ends. But he converted a modest number of chances into 850 yards and 13 touchdowns, finishing as the No. 2 fantasy scorer at his position. It seems unrealistic to expect Vernon to again account for 60-plus percent of Kaep's TD passes, so I'm not banking on another top-3 positional finish. If he gives us, say, 750 yards and eight scores, that would be a respectable season in this offense. Draft accordingly.
The Niners rarely threw to their running backs last season — Frank Gore caught just 16 passes, Kendall Hunter only three — so no player in this backfield gets a PPR bump. But the backs combined for 401 carries with Kaep taking another 92, so the total workload here is significant. Hunter tore his right ACL during camp, a horrible break for a solid back, and we have no timeline as of yet on Marcus Lattimore, who suffered a brutal knee injury in 2012. LaMichael James is working his way back from a left elbow dislocation, not that he projected as a huge piece of the ground game. So a backfield depth chart that once seemed crowded is now down to two names: Gore, a reliable vet, and Carlos Hyde, a rookie second-rounder.
Gore, at this stage, seems like a medical miracle. He had knee surgeries in college, then countless issues as a pro (shoulder, ankle, hip, foot, etc.) And then somehow, at the exact moment we all thought he would decline, Gore became one of the NFL's most reliable, predictable players. He's played all 16 games in each of the past three seasons, delivering 1,200-plus scrimmage yards per year with 8-9 TDs. Gore's efficiency slipped in the second half of 2013, true, but he still ran for 110 yards on 17 carries in a win over Seattle, plus he averaged 4.9 YPC in a playoff win at Carolina. I don't think he's cooked just yet. He's a tough player to bet against, even though he's now on the wrong side of 30. Given the various injuries to San Francisco's other backs, it seems likely that Gore will see another 240-260 carries this year. Thus, you can expect another 1,000 yards, with a handful of scores. He's an inoffensive RB2 for standard leaguers, but a player whose ceiling isn't far from his floor.
Hyde, without question, is a rookie of interest. If we were drafting all the first-year players for dynasty purposes today, a case could be made for taking Hyde first overall. His talent is obvious — the kid averaged 7.3 YPC for Ohio State last year, rushing for 1,521 yards — and he's the heir apparent to a high-mileage back. With Gore in the final year of his deal, it's not crazy to think that Hyde could emerge as a second-round redraft pick in 2015. For the season ahead, you have to expect that he'll take over Hunter's full workload, plus an additional 30-40 carries. If Gore misses time due to injury, Hyde will be a monster. His ADP has been rising steadily (up to 93.4 at Fantasy Football Calculator), to the point that he's no longer a steal. But he's a tremendous runner in a great situation, a terrific lottery ticket. The early exhibition returns have certainly been promising. (If you click those highlights, note where the first defenders actually make contact with Hyde. Those are some well-blocked plays.)
This team's defense has been dominant over multiple years, led by All-Pro DE Justin Smith and upper-tier IDP Patrick Willis. The Niners allowed the third-fewest points per game last season (17.0) and ranked fifth in total yardage (316.9 YPG). However, this D/ST will have to work around the early season absences of both NaVorro Bowman (ACL recovery) and Aldon Smith (likelihood of suspension), so we may not see this group at its best until November or December. Still, this D has talent at every level. I wouldn't actually reach to draft this unit at any point, but it will be owned in all leagues in opening week.
If you have any additional questions or concerns about this preview, let's maybe meet in the Yahoo Fantasy Football Lounge to talk it out.
2013 team stats: 25.4 PPG (NFL rank 11), 200.6 pass YPG (31), 21 pass TDs (23), 137.6 rush YPG (3), 31.6 rush attempts per game (3), 26.1 pass attempts per game (32)
Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32. Oakland, 31. Miami, 30. Jacksonville, 29. NY Jets, 28. Tennessee, 27. Cleveland, 26. Baltimore, 25. Carolina, 24. Buffalo, 23. Tampa Bay, 22. St. Louis, 21. NY Giants, 20. Kansas City, 19. Houston, 18. Arizona, 17. Minnesota, 16. Pittsburgh, 15. San Diego