When Alex Smith lost his starting job to Colin Kaepernick last season, he had actually completed 25 of his previous 27 throws, tossing four touchdown passes and no interceptions. Smith was playing the best football of his eight-year NFL career. He had helped lead the Niners to the conference title game the prior season, where they dropped a heart-breaker in OT to the eventual Super Bowl champs. No shame in that. Without question, Smith had reached an extremely high level, arguably maxing out his talent.
And still it was brutally obvious that Smith needed to sit in favor of Kaepernick — no question, zero doubt. Because Colin Kaepernick is a bad [expletive], and he added dimensions to the Niners' offense that were never going to exist with Smith at the controls.
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From the moment Kaepernick took the field in his first career start — facing the Bears defense on Monday night, no less — he made tight-window throws with velocity, and he made 'em look easy. He kept his running to a minimum against Chicago (4-10-0), but he was a dual-threat nightmare over his next three games, rushing for 164 yards and two TDs on 21 carries. Kaepernick ran the zone-read like he was born into the scheme. When single-coverage opportunities arose downfield for receivers, he fired away, unafraid. In Kaepernick's first postseason start, he passed for 263 yards and two scores, plus he rushed for 181 yards — one-eighty-one — and two additional touchdowns. He was an efficient passer in the regular season (8.3 Y/A) and even better in the playoffs (10.0).
Kaepernick brought the Niners to within five yards of a championship last February. I'm not about to declare that he can't take his team to a title this season, no matter the track record of Super Bowl runner-ups. Again: This is a bad, bad dude.
For fantasy purposes, Kaepernick obviously offers serious appeal. He accounted for 19 combined touchdowns in his 10 starts last season, playoffs included. His uncommon running ability — both in the option game and as a scrambler — provides a safety net to fantasy owners. You'd like to think that Kaepernick's size (6-4, 230) would give him a durability edge over many other mobile quarterbacks, too. (Defenses are presumably going to punish opposing QBs on option runs this season, whenever they have the chance.) With an average Yahoo draft position of 39.1, Kaepernick doesn't exactly come cheap — I completely understand if you're waiting another 40 picks, then taking Andrew Luck instead (79.7). But I've rostered Kap in multiple leagues this year, snagging him whenever he slips to the value rounds.
True, Michael Crabtree's offseason Achilles injury caused us all to pump the brakes a bit on the Kaepernick hype train — that pair connected on eight TD passes last season, from Week 11 through the Super Bowl. But Kaepernick still has a pair of good-to-great receiving options at his disposal in tight end Vernon Davis and veteran receiver Anquan Boldin, a new arrival in San Francisco.
Davis is really one of the trickiest fantasy assets in the player pool. He was useless in the most important weeks of the regular season in 2012, yet he's been an uncoverable beast in the playoffs over the last two years. Whenever the Niners find themselves in a win-or-go-home situation, Davis delivers. In San Francisco's last five postseason games, he's hauled in 22 passes for 546 yards and five touchdowns. Vernon also has one of the finest individual seasons in the history of his position already on his resume (13 TDs in '09), so it's not as if he's never been relevant to fantasy owners.
Bottom line: I'm a Davis believer in 2013. Of course I was also a Davis believer in 2012, when he had his worst season in forever. But the camp reports have been unrelentingly positive, and, well ... San Francisco really has no choice but to lean on Vernon this year. He's a ridiculous match-up problem for linebackers and safeties, much too talented to serve as a mere decoy in this passing game. Like Kaepernick, Davis isn't necessarily a value pick at the draft table (ADP 54.0, TE3), but he's set up for a big season. I'm in.
Boldin, on the other hand, has been a terrific value in drafts to this point (ADP 97.6). He's the sort of player that Scott Pianowski refers to as an "Ibanez All-Star" — too old and well-established to create any buzz at all, yet still thoroughly useful. No one who watched Boldin's work in the playoffs last season can seriously think he's finished. He caught 22 balls for 380 yards over four games, reaching the end zone four times. No, he isn't a burner. And yeah, he's on the wrong side of 30. But he'll win his man-coverage battles, and he's still reliable in traffic. Drafters are bypassing Boldin in favor of the young unknowns, but there's something to be said for a guy whose fantasy floor is probably 65-850-5. Boldin will be a prime target of Kaepernick's in 2013, so don't be surprised if he gives us a yardage total north of 950.
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While Crabtree is in recovery mode, the Niners clearly lack ideal starting options opposite Boldin. AJ Jenkins wasn't the answer, so he was shipped to Kansas City — the Niners basically treat the Chiefs as the NFL's version of the discard pile. Marlon Moore has been running with the starters throughout the preseason. Here's a quick scouting report on Moore from rookie DB Eric Reid...
"Speed guy. He is a deep threat for this team. Yesterday he caught a nice ball on the sideline. He’s reliable. We can send him down the field and throw him the ball. But for me, I’ve got to get him covered so I’ve got to make sure I take good angles and I have to get to him."
Mario Manningham has been PUP'd, still recovering from knee surgery (ACL), so we won't see him until mid-season. Fourth-round rookie Quinton Patton drew praise from his quarterback recently, after hauling in a preseason touchdown.
And then there's Jon Baldwin, the dude acquired from KC in the Jenkins dump deal. Baldwin might just be the all-time talented underachiever, a 6-4, 230-pound kid with extreme athleticism who's done little but disappoint. I'll probably take late-round, deep-league fliers on him until he's out of the game — he's plenty strong, has a 42-inch vertical — but I can't blame you if you've him from your draft board. I get it. He's a reclamation project, no doubt.
It sounds like Austin Collie is on the wrong side of the roster bubble, so don't draft him. Kyle Williams has been coming along slowly, recovering from various dents and tweaks, far removed from the standard-league fantasy conversation.
We can safely say that San Francisco's ground game will again be great, with Frank gore in line for another 1200 rushing yards and 7-8 scores, assuming good health. Gore is now 30 years old and he's had pretty much every body part replaced or repaired, but he's been solid over the past two seasons, playing all 16 in both 2011 and 2012. He'll do his running behind an outstanding line that returns all starters, including a pair of All-Pros (Joe Staley, Mike Iupati). Kendall Hunter is the handcuff here, and we'll see plenty of him in a rotational role. LaMichael James made some noise last December and January, but he's pretty clearly not going to have the Sproles-ian role we once imagined. Marcus Lattimore, coming off a gruesome knee injury, is strictly for the dynasty crowd.
The Niners defense, as everyone knows, is tremendous. Star-studded. This group ranked second in points-allowed last season (17.1 PPG), third in total yards (294.4), and fourth against both the run and the pass (94.2, 200.2). Simply put, this team stop whatever it is your team intends to do. The top IDPs here are Patrick Willis (120 tackles), Navorro Bowman (149 tackles) and Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks). Fear this unit, NFL. The regular season will open with tricky matchups for the Niners (GB, at SEA, IND), but this is the rare sort of D/ST that you can just park in your starting lineup and rest easy.
2012 team stats: 24.8 points per game (11), 221.9 passing yards per game (24), 155.7 rushing yards per game (4)
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