The 2013 San Francisco 49ers will be a fascinating team. They’re currently atop a division that two years ago appeared to be theirs for the foreseeable future. They’ve nearly made back-to-back Super Bowls, and they came a few yards and several seconds away from winning it all last year. There’s been a good bit of turnover on the defensive side of the ball, and several key replacements are question marks. Their offense lost a crucial piece when Michael Crabtree was felled by a torn Achilles, and their questionable wide receiver depth is now doing more than stare at them. So where are they now compared to the last time they took the field?
Frank Gore, Running Back
Their most reliable fantasy performer for the last five years has been feature running back Frank Gore, who has averaged 188.26 fantasy points per season over that stretch. However, he just turned 30, which puts him in fairly sobering company. There are only nine active, rostered running backs who will be over 30 years old at the beginning of the season. Of those nine, only three could be considered feature backs: Steven Jackson, Darren Sproles, and Gore. Sproles is the only one who hasn’t really started to show his age. Gore will benefit from running behind the best offensive line in football, but the loss of Crabtree will dictate more eight-man defensive fronts. Don’t be surprised if he starts to drop off in 2013. He’s a solid RB1 until proven otherwise.
2013 Stat Projections: 235 carries, 1,015 rushing yards, 10 rushing touchdowns
Vernon Davis, Tight End
Davis has also been a consistent contributor over the last several seasons. But a disturbing trend appeared last season after the infamous quarterback switch. Through Week 10, with Alex Smith, he had 404 receiving yards, averaging almost 45 yards per game. Over the last seven games, under Colin Kaepernick, he had 144 receiving yards (just under 21 yards per game), and 83 of those yards came in week 11 against the Chicago Bears. He had two 100-yard games in the playoffs, so Kaepernick knows how to look to his tight end. The question is, will he? As one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL on one of the run-heaviest teams, it’s possible the 49ers’ offensive staff preferred to keep him in to protect their young quarterback. They should be unleashing him next year, if that’s the case.
2013 Stat Projections: 65 receptions, 845 receiving yards, nine receiving touchdowns
Anquan Boldin, Wide Receiver
Anquan Boldin has made a career as a lethally reliable offset to Larry Fitzgerald and Torrey Smith. Statistically, he will benefit from being the nominal number-one target for Kaepernick. But the 49ers will need someone else to pick up some of the slack, because Davis and Boldin won't be enough to make opposing defenses uncomfortable. Boldin has never been known for his speed, and he'll turn 33 early this season. He specializes in making contested catches in traffic, so Kaepernick should learn to lean on him. He should get the bulk of his receptions early in the season, when he should be a solid PPR option as a fringy WR1.
2013 Stat Projections: 70 receptions, 810 receiving yards, eight receiving touchdowns
Colin Kaepernick, Quarterback
The 49ers premier fantasy player, of course, will be Colin Kaepernick. The gazelle-like, bicep-kissing, rocket-armed kid is a prototype of the modern NFL quarterback. He had his way with the NFL for ten startling weeks, leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl and earning some rather apt comparisons to John Elway. Alex Smith is no longer in his way, so he’ll get all of the first-team reps with the offense in the preseason, and he’ll presumably have full control of the offense come the first week of the season. The loss of Crabtree dings his value in standard one-QB leagues; he shouldn’t be considered a top-five option there, but should definitely remain in the top ten.
2013 Stat Projections: 65% completion, 3,800 passing yards, 25 passing touchdowns, nine interceptions, 95 rushing attempts, 600 rushing yards, nine rushing touchdowns
The most unpredictable aspects of San Francisco’s fantasy season (and their reality season) will be their defense and their wide receiver corps. After lighting the turnover world on fire with a +25 ratio in 2011, the 49ers dropped back down to earth with a still-respectable +9 mark. The biggest difference was on the defensive side: the 2011 squad forced 38 turnovers while their 2012 counterparts “only” managed 25, and most of it was related to fumble luck. If the 49ers can remain in the +10 range, they should remain a top ten fantasy defense.
A bigger deal will be the Justin Smith effect. Smith suffered a triceps injury in 2012. In the 13 games before he was injured, the 49ers allowed an average of just over 14 points per game. In the six games after his injury (including the playoffs), they allowed almost 30 points per game. Those numbers aren’t entirely predictive, but they matched the eye test: the 49ers defense is predicated on Justin Smith making an impact. As he enters his age-34 season, the 49ers’ biggest questions will revolve around his health and his potential replacement(s).
Finally, someone will need to step up for Crabtree and take the pressure off of Boldin. Kyle Williams will be the number two until Mario Manningham returns from his own injury, but Quinton Patton, A.J. Jenkins, and Ricardo Lockette are the most likely candidates to make an impact, and rookie tight end Vance McDonald will probably end up with a handful of receptions as well.