Juggernaut Index No. 10: The San Francisco 49ers

The Juggernaut Index is our annual ranking of NFL teams for fantasy purposes. Repeat: FOR FANTASY PURPOSES. This is not an NFL power ranking. We're reviewing each team's projected fantasy contributions — that's it.

The lingering worry about this team, at least from a fantasy perspective, is that San Francisco head coach Mike Singletary might be stuck in another era. It's possible that he lives within a bubble in which its always 1983. He's driving around in his Dodge Aries, listening to Golden Earring, and he's thinking about how his football team can dominate time-of-possession and win games while scoring 12 points.

That's my fear. Perhaps it's baseless, but there it is. If that's how the Niners plan to approach the 2010 season, then kicker Joe Nedney(notes) is the only guy you'll want to own.

It's tough to imagine this team not having a successful season in non-fantasy terms, of course, because the division appears to be a wasteland. San Francisco is the one franchise in the NFC West that cannot be described as either "rebuilding" or "appallingly bad." (We never really know in the NFL, though. You hate to write off an entire division. But the three other teams in the West ranked 16th, 27th and 28th in this year's Juggernaut Index, so clearly our expectations are very low). The Niners' schedule outside the division seems friendly, too, with games against Kansas City, Oakland, Denver, Carolina and Tampa Bay. Looking ahead, it's easy to see this team's path to 10 wins and a playoff berth.

But again, we're not here to talk projected wins or playoff odds. Those things aren't generally relevant to fantasy owners. In fact, we'd much rather invest in a 5-win squad that finds itself in weekly shootouts, plays no defense, and ultimately picks near the top of the draft. San Francisco does not appear to be such a team, but that doesn't mean this group can't help us.

For starters, the Niners offer a running back who ranks No. 6 overall, and who will be a first-round pick in absolutely every fantasy draft. Frank Gore(notes) is serious talent coming off a 13-touchdown season. Last year, with run-friendly coordinator Jimmy Raye directing the offense and fullback Moran Norris(notes) clearing debris, Gore averaged 4.9 YPC, his best per-carry production since his breakout season in 2006. Injuries have always been part of the equation with Gore — he's only played a full 16-game schedule once in his five-year career — but he's a versatile back, invariably useful in PPR leagues, and no one below him on the depth chart threatens his carries. Draft him with confidence. Glen Coffee(notes) is out of the picture (early retirement) and Brian Westbrook(notes) is basically a one-year experiment in his age-31 season. Rookie sixth-rounder Anthony Dixon(notes) is a potentially interesting handcuff, although the Westbrook signing is an obvious issue. Dixon is a big back (6-foot-1, 235) who filled the stat sheet in the Niners' preseason opener (21-103-1 vs. IND), and he has at least one awesome suit in his wardrobe.

But still, Gore is the centerpiece here. Everything else is just decoration. This team made a massive investment in its offensive line on draft day, selecting tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati(notes) in Round 1. The Niners are clearly ready to run.

Whether or not they're ready to pass is an issue that's still open to debate. If they're not, you can't really blame the receiving corps. This is a talented unit. Tight end Vernon Davis(notes) had a monstrous breakout campaign in 2009, catching 78 passes for 965 yards and 13 TDs. Every week, it felt like he and quarterback Alex Smith connected on a seam route for a long score (or two, or three). No one ever questioned Davis' raw skills, just his focus — and Coach Singletary quickly resolved that problem. Davis would be a top-three fantasy TE on everyone's draft board if this strain of Jermichael Finley fever wasn't so powerful.

Wide receiver Michael Crabtree(notes) is an exceptional talent, too. He never managed to have a huge game as a rookie, but he was consistently productive despite missing training camp and the first five weeks of the season due to a contract dispute. It's remarkable that any first-year player could step into an offense at mid-season and be so useful, so quickly. Crabtree actually led all NFL rookies in receiving yards per game, even though he lacked preparation alongside teammates. Again: Remarkable. It's tough to imagine him taking a step back in year two, now that he's actually experiencing an NFL camp and a preseason.

After Davis and Crabtree are drafted in the early rounds — their respective ADPs are 56.2 and 44.1 — there's not so much to choose from among the Niners' receivers. It's just a parade of failed sleepers (Josh Morgan(notes), Ted Ginn Jr.(notes), Jason Hill(notes)) and another Bay Area Zeigler (Dominique, not Brad). This year, Ginn will find himself in a supporting role where he can't inflict a great deal of damage via drops. He won't see another 78 targets, like he did in Miami. Morgan will start for San Francisco, but realistically, he's Plan D in this offense when everyone is healthy.

Alex Smith returns at quarterback for the Niners, and this is really where things get complicated. Hopefully we can all agree that Smith lacks the ideal skill set. His arm isn't the best, nor is his recognition. Sure, Smith's NFL backstory is impressive and Michael Silver tells it well, but in fantasy we're drafting stats, not bios. This is a flawed quarterback. Nonetheless, he does have a few terrific weapons at his disposal and there's finally some continuity in the offense. Last year, after Smith took over in Week 7, the Niners played to his strengths and limitations, relying heavily on spread-shotgun (to the dismay of Gore owners). Smith ultimately delivered six multi-TD games, finishing with more touchdowns (18) than interceptions (12) for the first time in his NFL career.

This season, you should expect San Francisco to get back to more traditional sets, emphasizing the power running game. Smith isn't likely to lead anyone to a fantasy title, but he's also a no-risk pick. His Mock Draft Central ADP is 269.5, which places him deep in backup territory. We're delighted to report that David Carr is Smith's understudy. If this team can just sign Tim Couch(notes), they'll have the complete set.

The Niners' defense looks awfully good, and as we mentioned above, the schedule appears to be friendly. This unit certainly deserves to be among the first five off the board in standard drafts. Patrick Willis will be the top defensive player selected in most IDP formats, and you'll target DB Dashon Goldson(notes), DE Justin Smith(notes) and DB Michael Lewis, too. And keep an eye on rookie DB Taylor Mays(notes). And if Singletary decides to become a player/coach, make the add.

OK, prospectors, give up the nuggets in comments…


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