Juggernaut Index, No. 31: The San Francisco 49ers

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Andy Behrens
Juggernaut Index, No. 31: The San Francisco 49ers
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The Juggernaut Index is our annual ranking and review of NFL teams for fantasy purposes — repeat: FANTASY PURPOSES. Here, we concern ourselves with a franchise's likely contributions to the fantasy player pool. We are not concerned with projected wins and losses. Instead, we're focused on yards and points. As always, we're beginning with the league's least useful teams, working our way toward the elite fantasy juggernauts.

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The Niners roster is absurdly short on talent, a potentially toxic mix of reclamation projects and bad ideas. There's really nothing on this team that should interest you for fantasy purposes, with the possible exception of Carlos Hyde — and if you owned Hyde at any point in the past two seasons, then you probably aren't interested in him, either.

I'm only willing to dive so deep with this team, because I don't want to leave any of you with the impression that San Francisco's depth chart is somehow rich with sleepers. Honestly, if you avoid all Niners on draft day, you will likely have a more enjoyable fantasy experience. Don't enter this carnival of pain.

Chip Kelly (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Chip Kelly (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

San Francisco's biggest offseason addition was head coach Chip Kelly, who'd been fired by the Eagles after a disastrous campaign in which he controlled both play-calling and personnel decisions. Under Kelly, Philadelphia's offense ranked middle-of-the-pack in both total yardage and scoring last season, and of course last year's Eagles had considerably more talent than this year's Niners. Let's not assume Kelly's system, despite its uncommon pace, can elevate a faulty, substandard roster to fantasy relevance.

Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick will enter camp in a battle for the starting quarterback role for San Francisco. The previous sentence is among the saddest I've written in my nine years at Yahoo. Gabbert was unexpectedly not-terrible in his eight games with the Niners last season (7.2 Y/A, 86.2 rating), but let's not confuse real-life competence with fantasy upside. He threw exactly one touchdown pass in six of his eight appearances, and delivered three games with less than 200 passing yards. These are uninspiring numbers. He probably has a slight edge over Kaepernick in the starting competition at the moment, but this means very little in June. Kaepernick is returning from multiple surgeries and multiple years of inadequate play, so he has everything to prove and a new system to master at age 28. (Gabbert, for the record, is two years younger than Colin.)

We tend to think of mobility as a prized quarterback trait in Kelly's offense, but it's not as if he's running the wishbone. Kelly's Eagles put the ball in the air 623 times last year. Accuracy and decision-making are everything in the NFL at the quarterback position, and these have not been strengths for either Gabbert or Kaepernick. Neither has a career completion percentage above 60.0. You won't be drafting this team's opening week QB in standard 10 or 12-team fantasy leagues, no matter which player gets the nod. There's a very good chance that the starting quarterback for the 2017 Niners is currently enrolled at Clemson or Miami.

Kelly's offense produced a pair of top-25 fantasy receivers in both 2013 (D-Jax, Cooper) and 2014 (Maclin and Matthews), plus another last year (Matthews), so I can understand if you feel moderately tempted by Torrey Smith. He won't cost much on draft day, presumably, since he's coming off a miserable 663-yard, four-spike season. Smith was targeted just 61 times over 16 games in 2015, catching 33 balls and producing the worst numbers of his five-year career. He's more of a go-route receiver than an every-route guy, and he's obviously not tied to a quarterback who can consistently take advantage of his one great skill. There are issues here, no question. But he's also the No. 1 receiver on a team that will play fast and attempt 580-plus passes, so he remains in the fantasy conversation.

Torrey Smith (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Torrey Smith (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Beyond Smith, San Francisco's receiver depth chart is abysmal. It hardly seems possible for an offense led by Gabbert or Kaepernick to produce a second ownable fantasy wideout, but perhaps third-year slot receiver Bruce Ellington can make some low-level PPR noise. Kelly seems fond of him, and someone is going to see all the short-range targets that won't go to Smith. Quinton Patton remains an uninteresting supporting receiver in a brutal passing game, so there's no need for his name to appear on your cheat sheet. Eric Rogers is kinda/sorta interesting, because he has nice size (6-foot-3) and athleticism (37-inch vertical), and he's coming off a tremendous year in Calgary (87-1448-10). Rogers has found his way to the NFL after a detour through arena football and the CFL, which makes him easy to root for, if you'll be stuck watching this team. Tight end Vance McDonald could very well finish as the Niners' second-leading receiver, coming off a respectable second-half in 2015. McDonald and Gabbert worked reasonably well together, as Vance closed his season by topping 60 receiving yards in three of his final six games. If you play in a league that starts two tight ends (a rare format, but it exists), give him a look.

Depending on your tolerance for injury risk, Carlos Hyde is either the safest Niners skill player — he's the team's unrivaled featured runner — or he's the most dangerous, because he's only rarely not hurt. Hyde appeared in only seven games last season, eventually landing on I.R. due to a stress fracture in his foot. He was a monster in the team's season-opener against the Vikings, rushing for 168 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries, but that was the sell-high point. He made only one additional visit to the end-zone before the October injury. There's little question that Hyde will see all the touches he can possibly handle in Kelly's offense — no other back on the roster is in his tier, talent-wise — but he really needs to remain active, avoiding unnecessary contact.

Kelly certainly sounds like he's fond of his new workhorse back:

“I’ve only seen one Carlos Hyde, and the Carlos Hyde I know has been healthy and full go,” Kelly said. “Our style and scheme adapts to whoever it is,” Kelly added, “but he certainly has the skillset to be an outstanding running back at this level, because he can do everything.”

Chip's scheme did not, in fact, fit DeMarco Murray particularly well last season, despite all the good vibes during the offseason. We should also mention that there's little evidence to support the claim that Hyde can "do everything," because he's only caught 23 passes in 21 career games in the NFL, plus another 34 in his four years at Ohio State. Shaun Draughn remains the backup/handcuff in San Francisco, and he could emerge as a 45-55 catch RB. But unless you play in a monstrously deep league, you really shouldn't handcuff a good-not-great back who's tethered to a low-yield offense.

The Niners defense wasn't anything special last season following various defections, allowing 387.4 total yards per game, ranking No. 29 in the league. NaVorro Bowman is still around, however, coming off a 154-tackle season, and the team used the No. 7 overall pick in the draft on Oregon beast DeForest Buckner. So things aren't entirely bad on that side of the ball. Still, you aren't going to actually draft this group in a fantasy league of any size or shape. San Francisco's team D is strictly a streaming option.

Perhaps Kelly can reanimate a team that flat-lined last season, but the Niners certainly appear to requite a multi-year rebuild. Last season's team stats were horrendous (see below). Playing at a faster pace may simply result in a hurry-up-and-punt approach that wears down the defense, frustrating fans and fantasy investors.

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2015 Offensive Stats & Ranks
Points per game – 14.9 (32)
Pass YPG – 207.3 (29)
Rush YPG – 96.5 (21)
Yards per play – 5.0 (30)
Plays per game – 60.6 (30)

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Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) Cleveland