Before we begin our preview of the San Francisco 49ers, let me remind you that the Juggernaut Index is entirely about fantasy potential. Repeat: FANTASY.
The Niners had an outstanding season under head coach Jim Harbaugh in 2011, going 13-3 and dominating their division, then knocking off the Saints in a gloriously entertaining playoff game. This was a terrific team, a group that featured a punishing defense and an offense that rarely gave away the ball. That's a winning formula.
However, from a fantasy perspective, there really wasn't much to get excited about. San Francisco delivered the No. 18 quarterback in our game, the No. 13 running back, the No. 33 wide receiver and the No. 8 tight end. That's not terrible, obviously, though it hardly makes 'em a fantasy buffet.
The Niners added a few buzzy names during the offseason, but, after finishing as a runner-up in the Peyton Manning pageant, this franchise chained itself to quarterback Alex Smith for another three years. Smith is coming off the best year by far of his NFL career, yet he didn't help fantasy owners in any significant way (unless you owned him in a playoff league. He accounted for six postseason TDs, which was 3-4 more than anyone expected). Since arriving in the league in 2005, Smith has never had a 20-touchdown campaign, he's never averaged 220 yards per game, and he's never attempted 450 passes in any season — and none of those numbers are especially good. He has reliably been a poor-to-average fantasy QB, a guy with a slow trigger and less-than-ideal improvisational skills.
In a year where the middle tiers at quarterback really seem loaded with potential, Smith is tough to draft. Sure, he'll have a few interesting weapons at his disposal, but he's never demonstrated that he's the sort of quarterback who can maximize the potential of his receivers.
Vernon Davis is the safest name in Smith's receiving corps, a player who should be universally owned in fantasy, no question. He's an exceptional talent who caught 67 balls on 95 targets a year ago, picking up 792 yards and breaking the plane six times. He was a beast in the playoffs, too, catching 10 passes for 292 yards and four scores in a pair of classic games. Perhaps the fact that Davis finished his season on such a remarkable binge — he had eight catches for 118 yards in Week 17 — suggests that he was just beginning to feel completely confident in Coach Harbaugh's offense. He'd never had a three-game stretch like that, even in his record-setting 2009. I've got no complaints about Davis' ADP (66.3); he's the sixth tight end off the board in an average draft, yet he's as physically skilled as anyone at his position.
As great as Davis was last season, he didn't actually lead the team in catches or receiving yards. Michael Crabtree hauled in 72 passes for 874 yards on 114 targets, though he only crossed the goal line four times. Red-zone touchdowns proved elusive for the Niners all year, in fact, as the team finished with the league's third-worst TD rate inside their opponent's 20-yard line. Thus, it made sense for this team to take a shot with 6-foot-4 Randy Moss, a receiver who should still be able to win jump-balls at age 35 (if Smith is willing to throw 'em). Moss was a DNP in 2011, coming off a wretched 2010, a season in which he played indifferently for three teams. He's one of the most gifted players in the history of his sport, so you hate to write him off at any age. Still, it's tough to take a year off from the NFL, then return to relevance, especially in an offense that provides so few opportunities to its receivers.
Fantasy owners are undeterred, drafting Moss 33rd at his position, roughly 40 picks ahead of Crabtree (82.6 vs. 122.3) and 67 spots earlier than the team's other big free agent WR addition, Mario Manningham (Super Bowl hero, fantasy tease). I like Moss as much or more than any of the other receivers on this depth chart, based on TD upside and projected role, but I can't say I prefer him by the margin expressed via ADPs. Crabtree is already dealing with an injury, so that's part of the calculation. We can safely ignore Ted Ginn, Kyle Williams and rookie AJ Jenkins in nearly all formats, even if Harbaugh says he has a team full of No. 1 receivers. Some would say this is a team full of No. 2s and 4s and 5s.
In the end, the best thing about all these new outside receiving threats is that they should clear space for Vernon, the one member of the Niners' receiving corps I'll actually target in fantasy drafts.
The San Francisco backfield got complicated after years of relative simplicity, with Brandon Jacobs and Oregon rookie LaMichael James added to the mix. If you think that Frank Gore is in line for another 280-carry season after that pair was brought aboard ... well, then I've got a 280-carry Washington back to sell you, too.
Gore is an excellent player coming off a 1,200-yard, eight-touchdown season, but he's also 29 and he's dealt with a crazy number of injuries over the years. Definitely out of warranty, held together with replacement parts. He was certainly not at his best in the second-half of the 2011 season — just check the game log. Gore's receptions and targets took a nosedive last season, so he can no longer be viewed as a clear PPR asset. The 260-pound Jacobs is considered a favorite for the short-yardage role, and we can expect him to poach a few goal line opportunities. Kendall Hunter is still in the picture, too, coming off a respectable rookie season, but the new arrivals really kneecap his fantasy value.
The 5-foot-8 James is an elusive runner, creative and fast, a change-of-pace back with home run potential. The Niners may envision a Sproles-like role for the second-round rookie; you'll recall that Darren caught 15 balls in the playoff loss at San Francisco. But we need to be careful not to compare every smallish back to Sproles, a unique talent with uncommon skills. Regardless of James' exact role, we should assume that he'll have a chance to make plays in his first NFL season. He's facing an adjustment period in camp — the kid hasn't been in a huddle since high school — but he's a player of interest, particularly in dynasty formats.
San Francisco's defense is absolutely terrifying, the consensus No. 1 in fantasy, clearly the real-life strength of this team. Last year, this group ranked second in the league in points-allowed (14.3), fourth in total yards (308.3), and first against the run (77.3). The Niners allowed only three rushing scores all season, and none until Week 16. This team D will be the first off the board in nearly all fantasy drafts. The San Francisco defense is reportedly dominating the offense early in camp, to no one's surprise. Linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman should be among the first IDPs selected in drafts; Aldon Smith (14.0 sacks) and Justin Smith (7.5) belong on the board as well.
For the second time this week, we're forced to mention a kicker in a Juggernaut Index entry. Pretty sure that's new territory in this series. David Akers established single-season records for field goals made and attempted last season (44-for-52), benefiting from the fact that his team routinely stalled in the red zone. He's thus a clear top-three pick at his position in fantasy drafts ... but you're still not allowed to take him before the final two rounds.
2011 team stats: 23.8 PPG (NFL rank 10), 127.8 rush YPG (8), 199.6 pass YPG (30), 26.69 yards/drive (23), 0.054 turnovers/drive (1)
Previous Juggernaut posts: 32. Miami, 31. St. Louis, 30. Indianapolis, 29. Jacksonville, 28. Cleveland, 27. Arizona, 26. Seattle, 25. Minnesota, 24. Tampa Bay, 23. Buffalo, 22. New York Jets, 21. Washington, 20. Oakland