The 49ers are hoping for a fresh start this season under new coach Jim Harbaugh, and Captain Comeback has plenty of work to do if he wants to turn around a team that went 6-10 in 2010. Fantasy owners should pay attention because San Francisco still has several relevant options in the majority of leagues.
Frank Gore remains a No. 1 Fantasy running back even though he is getting to the point where he is no longer an elite rusher. He only played 11 games last season due to a hip injury, but he is expected to make a full recovery.
While it seems like Gore might be a player to avoid on Draft Day, keep in mind he's had at least 200 carries and 46 catches in every year since 2006, and he should be around 250 total touches again. That kind of workload is hard to come by for a running back these days, and we recommend drafting Gore with an early-round pick in Round 2.
After Gore, tight end Vernon Davis will be the next San Francisco player drafted in all leagues. Davis has proven the past two years that he's among the best Fantasy options at his position. In 2009, Davis had a breakout season with 78 catches for 965 yards and 13 touchdowns, and he followed that up in 2010 with 56 catches for 914 yards and seven touchdowns. Davis should be drafted as early as Round 4.
Michael Crabtree enters his third season in the NFL in 2011, and we hope this is the season he puts is all together. The potential is there, but he has to be consistent and prove he should be a starting Fantasy option. He also has to develop a rapport with Alex Smith, who should return as the starter.
Even though the 49ers drafted a future starter in Colin Kaepernick, Smith is expected to start in Week 1. He has organized player-only workouts during the lockout, and Davis has said this is the best Smith has looked in the offseason. If Smith starts out the season playing well, Fantasy owners could add him off the waiver wire since he will go undrafted in the majority of leagues.
It now falls on Harbaugh to help Smith become a quality NFL starter, and how Smith plays could determine how Harbaugh does in his first year. Can Captain Comeback bring the 49ers back to elite status? We'll find out this season.
Breakout ... Michael Crabtree, WR
|Player||Draft Day value|
|Ted Ginn Jr.|
I struggled with calling Crabtree a breakout or a bust, but I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt in his third year and say this will be his best season to date. In 2010, Crabtree improved from his disappointing rookie year, but he didn't post outstanding stats with 55 catches for 741 yards and six touchdowns. At times Crabtree looked great with six games with double digits in Fantasy points. But at times he was nonexistent with 10 games with five points or less. Still, based on Crabtree's potential and role in the offense (he had 101 targets last year) he is worth drafting as a No. 3 Fantasy receiver with a mid-round pick, and hopefully this is the season he has a breakout performance. He should also be fine following a potential foot injury this offseason, but keep an eye on his health in training camp.
Impact rookie … Kendall Hunter, RB
The 49ers drafted Hunter from Oklahoma State in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. Hunter carried 271 times last season for 1,548 yards and 16 touchdowns while also making 20 catches for 101 yards. Hunter has the makings of a great change-of-pace back in the NFL, and he could see time playing behind Gore. Keep in mind that Gore is coming off a hip injury that limited him to 11 games last year, and he has only played one full season (2006) in his seven-year career. If Gore goes down again, Hunter would likely split time with Anthony Dixon, but Hunter has more upside – similar to Brian Westbrook last year. Hunter is worth using as a handcuff option to Gore, or he can be drafted on his own with a late-round pick if you're counting on Gore to miss his usual one or two games during the season.
Keeper-league target … Colin Kaepernick, QB
The 49ers traded up in the second round to take Kaepernick with the 36th overall pick in the NFL Draft out of Nevada. Smith is expected to start this season, but barring the 49ers drafting Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck next year, Kaepernick should be the quarterback of the future. Kaepernick threw for 3,022 yards and 21 touchdowns for the Wolfpack last season -- and had 59 rushing touchdowns in four years -- but he needs work to become a quality NFL starter. He could end up similar to Tim Tebow where his rushing production will help his overall stats, and he's worth a late-round pick in dynasty and keeper leagues. There's even a chance we could see Kaepernick start this season if Smith falters or the 49ers fall out of playoff contention and want to give the rookie a chance. Owners in 14- and 16-team leagues or in two-quarterback formats could end up relying on Kaepernick this year as someone off the waiver wire.
Harbaugh better like flying because his first season with the 49ers will be spent on several long trips. San Francisco has to travel to the East Coast for three games against Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore, with the Ravens game scheduled for Thanksgiving night. The other two games are 1 p.m. ET starts, which is never good for West Coast teams. Along with that, the 49ers have some difficult home games against Dallas, the Giants and Pittsburgh. When you draft guys like Gore, Davis and Crabtree you should plan on some great matchups (NFC West opponents, Cleveland and Tampa Bay) and some difficult games. It could be a tough year for Harbaugh to turn things around right away.
Training camp topics
Harbaugh has said Smith and Kaepernick will compete for the starting job in training camp. Even though Smith has the advantage, Kaepernick could still make it interesting with a strong performance.
Fantasy owners who draft Gore with a first-round pick will want to know who the No. 2 running back will be this season. Hunter and Dixon will battle it out, and we expect Hunter to have more Fantasy relevance if something happens to Gore. Still, in the event of a Gore injury, Dixon and Hunter would likely share the job.
And we'd like to see if anyone can emerge behind Crabtree as a No. 2 wide receiver who can help in Fantasy leagues. Josh Morgan is expected to start again, and he's played well the past two years with 96 catches for 1,225 yards and five touchdowns, but we want more. Unfortunately, there isn't much there in this thin receiving corps.
As Fantasy owners, we are always looking for teams to have as many options as possible, and maybe Harbaugh can find a potential gem on his roster outside of just Gore, Davis and Crabtree.
Michael Crabtree (foot; questionable for the start of training camp) ... Joe Nedney (knee; questionable for the start of training camp) … Frank Gore (hip; probable for the start of training camp) … Colin Kaepernick (leg; probable for the start of training camp) … Patrick Willis (knee; probable for the start of training camp)
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