The 49ers went 8-8 last season, but they enter 2010 with the chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. There's plenty of reason for optimism in San Francisco.
For starters, the 49ers finally have a starting quarterback they can count on. Alex Smith, who was a bust when San Francisco drafted him No. 1 overall in 2005, finally looked like a quality passer when he was given a second chance last year.
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Smith is surrounded by plenty of talent on offense with Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree, and the 49ers enhanced their offensive line by drafting rookie Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati. On defense, the 49ers are led by Patrick Willis, who is among the best linebackers in the NFL.
There also is change in Arizona, which has been San Francisco's biggest rival in the NFC West, with Kurt Warner and Anquan Boldin now gone. The 49ers also swept the Cardinals in two games last year.
For Fantasy owners, Gore remains a No. 1 option and is worth a first-round pick in all leagues. He should have another dominant year.
Along with Smith, Davis finally lived up to his potential last year when he tied the NFL record for touchdowns by a tight end with 13. He is a No. 1 Fantasy tight end this year and could repeat his performance as the best player at his position.
We also like Crabtree to improve in his sophomore season, and Josh Morgan is also someone Fantasy owners should keep an eye on. The 49ers DST could also be considered a starting unit, as 2010 has the makings for a big year in San Francisco.
Sleeper ... Alex Smith, QB
Smith is back as the starting quarterback in San Francisco, and this time he plans to keep the job. The former No. 1 overall pick in 2005 lost the starting position due to shoulder injuries and inconsistent play, but he was given a second chance in 2009 when Shaun Hill struggled. Smith never looked back as did well developing a rapport with Davis, Crabtree and Gore.
Smith showed his potential during a three-game stretch last season against Green Bay, Jacksonville and Seattle with 769 passing yards, seven touchdowns and one interception, which put him on the Fantasy radar again. He finished the season completing a career-high 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,350 yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He is a No. 2 Fantasy option coming into the season, which happens to be a potential contract year, but he can be a spot starter in standard leagues with the chance to increase his value if he picks up where last season ended. We never thought Smith would be Fantasy relevant again, but here he is with the chance to keep getting better.
|Player||Draft Day value|
|Ted Ginn Jr.|
Breakout ... Michael Crabtree, WR
Crabtree was better than expected as a rookie last year when he finished with 48 catches for 625 yards and two touchdowns. He only played in 11 games after missing the first five games due to a holdout. This year, Crabtree will be on the field from Week 1, and he has the potential to be a No. 2 Fantasy wide receiver. He would have finished with 69 catches for 909 yards and three touchdowns last year if you projected his stats over a full season, but we think he's much better than that. He's had a full offseason of work and reports out of San Francisco are that he has a better understanding of the offense and looks polished. We think he's in line to take the next step in his career, and he could be a solid Fantasy wide receiver in 2010.
Late-round flier ... Josh Morgan, WR
Morgan is expected to start for the 49ers this year opposite Crabtree. He's entering his third year in the NFL, which is typically when wide receivers have a breakout season, so plenty of eyes are on him. Morgan had a decent year in 2009. He finished with 52 catches for 527 yards and three touchdowns, which were better stats than Crabtree, although he played in five more games. Morgan will get plenty of single coverage with defenses focusing on Davis and Crabtree, and that could allow Morgan to make some plays. We're not expecting Morgan to develop into a starting Fantasy option, but he could be a bye-week or injury replacement this year. And if he has a breakout campaign in his third year you'll be happy you drafted him with a late-round pick.
The 49ers have nine road games this year when you factor in the Week 8 trip to London against Denver. But they benefit like the rest of their division by playing the AFC West, which means two games against Kansas City and Oakland. They also get to face a depleted Arizona defense twice along with four games against the Seahawks and Rams, so look for the San Francisco offense to shine this season.
Training camp topics
Fantasy owners who draft Gore with a first-round pick will want to know who the No. 2 running back will be this season. Rookie Anthony Dixon plans to challenge Coffee for the role, but we expect Coffee to hold onto the job.
We'll also find out what role, if any, Ted Ginn Jr. will have on offense. He's not worth drafting in the majority of Fantasy leagues this year, but his deep speed could help Smith get a couple of extra touchdown passes.
This is the first time in several years the 49ers don't have to worry about their quarterback situation. Smith is entrenched as the starter, and hopefully he can play like he did in 2009 and lead San Francisco back to the playoffs.
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