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NFL Team Preview: Health the major key to 49ers' fantasy football outlook

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We’re previewing every NFL team to get you ready for the 2021 season. Our analysts will tackle pressing fantasy questions and team win totals, in order from the squad with the least amount of fantasy relevancy all the way to the most talented team. Next up, the 10th-ranked San Francisco 49ers.

1. The 49ers have an elite tight end in George Kittle and two young receivers on the rise in Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel. Who would be your top choice of the trio at ADP?

Liz: Aiyuk is the fantasy favorite after putting together an impressive rookie campaign when he averaged nearly 95 yards per game from Weeks 7-15. But his soft tissue issues cost him two games in 2020. That would bother me less if he also hadn’t already been sidelined at OTAs with a groin injury.

I get that none of these guys are considered durable. Yet, only one of them is a top-three option at his position. That’s why I’m going with Kittle. He was limited to eight games in 2020. For the three years prior, however, he stayed on the field for at least 14 weeks. There’s no doubt he’ll get dinged up and probably play hurt. When he’s on the field, though, his catch rate (over 76% in back-to-back years) and YAC (around 5 YPT in consecutive seasons) make him a true difference-maker at an ultra-volatile position.

Dalton: Kittle is without question one of the most valuable real-life players, but he’s a pass in fantasy leagues given his significant injury risk and high ADP. As much as I love Samuel and his sneaky rushing stats, he too is a pretty big durability concern. Aiyuk will cost a higher pick, but he jumped off the page as a rookie last season and should benefit from much-improved QB play this year. He may see a dip in target share if the 49ers somehow stay healthy, but he’s a budding star (with Calvin Johnson’s wingspan) whom I have ranked as a top-15 fantasy WR.

Matt: I love this trio of pass-catchers and don’t wish to speak ill of any of them. However, parsing out the volume on this team, an operation that’s likely to finish bottom-10 in pass attempts and captained by a rookie passer is tricky. There’s so much debate in the fantasy community between the games missed each last year and how that affected the target distribution ... but who knows if that matters. This offense is so young and players are evolving. Honestly, I think every one of them is fairly valued in ADP right now. My favorite to select, however, is Brandon Aiyuk. I believe he’s a separator on the Stefon Diggs/Calvin Ridley axis and not a guy you have to create touches for. We’ve only seen the beginning of his rise.

Wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk #11 of the San Francisco 49ers
Brandon Aiyuk looks like a superstar in the making. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

2. The 49ers seem to be able to make any running back relevant under Kyle Shanahan. Are you prioritizing rookie Trey Sermon or veteran Raheem Mostert, and can both players be weekly fantasy starters? 

Dalton: Mostert has the upside to be a top-three fantasy back given his skills and the setup in San Francisco, but he’s also one of the likeliest players to get injured in the league. He’s 29 years old with eight career starts and just 282 career carries, and he even missed OTAs with a similar knee sprain that hampered him last season. Sermon was no ironman in college, but he enters the league with fresh legs, "ahead of the curve" and as an apparent perfect fit for Shanahan’s outside-zone scheme (the rookie has also had a big game in the spotlight). Both backs can be fantasy starters in this offense (and given the small hurdle it takes to be a fantasy RB3 these days), but it will become tougher when/if Trey Lance takes over, as he’ll absolutely steal rushing touchdowns (and likely target the RBs less too).

Matt: There is a zero percent chance they are both weekly fantasy starters, at least not guys you’d play with the utmost confidence if they’re both popping off at once. You have to make a stand on one or the other. I’d advise being ahead of the market on Trey Sermon. The 49ers' run game is one of the best soils to plant a running back and the team traded up to snag him. Clearly, they want more out of their running game. I want to be bullish on this offense outkicking expectations. Being aggressive on Sermon’s projection is part of that.

Liz: The fourth RB to come off the board, San Francisco moved up to add Sermon with the No. 88 pick. Before Jeff Wilson was officially lost (knee) until midseason, I was worried that the “Shanny effect” might inflate Sermon’s ADP. But now, I’m all-in on the former Buckeye. The investment in Sermon indicates a clear path to work. And those touches figure to come rather immediately, as Raheem Mostert already dealt with a knee sprain in OTAs. In possession of a three-down skill set, Sermon (were he to stay healthy, which shouldn’t be assumed given his running style and injury history) could post over 1,000 yards in his rookie effort. He’s on the RB2/RB3 bubble for fantasy purposes.

3. San Francisco shoved all-in to trade up for Trey Lance, but Jimmy Garoppolo could very well be the Week 1 starter. Is it best to draft and hold Lance, jump at adding him as soon as he takes over, or wait and see how things play out?

Matt: In a traditional redraft league, it’s just always tough to burn a roster spot on a backup quarterback. I guarantee that if you draft Lance but he doesn’t start Week 1, you’ll be tempted to drop him for the first hot waiver-wire running back pickup after the opening slate. In best-ball, absolutely reserve a spot for the enthralling rookie QB who was just dropped into a perfect situation. He could be a fantasy difference-maker from the moment he hits the field. I hope we get more confidence in the month of August that he’ll be the guy out there Week 1.

Liz: If you have the space to stash then go for it. But even as Lance is being encouraged to compete for the starting job, there’s no guarantee when he’ll take over. The 49ers open the season at Detroit and Philly, against two defenses that aren’t likely to overwhelm Garoppolo. Setting aside an injury (which is certainly possible), I don’t think we’d see Trey before Week 4 (vs SEA) and probably not until Week 7 (after the team’s Week 6 bye). Lance is obviously more of a priority in Superflex, as his wheels allow for immediate top-15-ish fantasy production. In standard 1QB formats, I’d track his availability and hope to proactively scoop him off the waiver wire based on the aforementioned timeline.

Dalton: How early you have to draft Lance depends entirely on your league and format, but he’ll be an immediate top-10 fantasy QB as soon as he becomes starter given his situation, weapons, and rushing ability. With an easy schedule and a loaded roster (and with far more experience), Garoppolo could easily end up starting until injuries strike, which is anyone’s guess when (but will likely happen). Lance is a possible “league winner” in Superflex drafts who will be well worth stashing.

San Francisco 49ers projected 2021 fantasy contributors

QB: Jimmy Garoppolo / Trey Lance

RB: Raheem Mostert / Trey Sermon

WR: Deebo Samuel / Brandon Aiyuk

TE: George Kittle

San Francisco 49ers O/U on 10 team win total from BetMGM

Dalton: OVER. The 49ers are coming off a comically injury-ruined season (like, historically bad) that saw them total the second-most adjusted games lost ever but reloaded during the offseason while drafting an exciting young QB. It’s not feasible to pull off long-term but having depth at the most important position is an obvious plus. Jimmy G is 22-8 as a starter in SF, while Lance will eventually unlock Shanahan’s playbook. Nick Bosa’s health will also be key. The Niners have by far the easiest schedule in the NFL this season based on projected Vegas win totals, so I’m hammering the over (-140).

Follow Dalton: @daltondeldon

Follow Liz: @LizLoza_FF

Follow Matt: @MattHarmon_BYB