The 49ers ended the 2013 season in arguably the worst way possible. It made for a long offseason, and plenty of motivation for this year.
In last year's NFC Championship Game, the 49ers lost to division rival Seattle when Richard Sherman knocked away a potential game-winning touchdown from Colin Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree – and Sherman let the world know how he felt. San Francisco also lost standout linebacker Navorro Bowman (knee) in that game, and the 49ers had to watch the Seahawks go on to win the Super Bowl.
In April, coach Jim Harbaugh said in an interview with CBSSports.com that the 49ers can't wait for this season to start based on how last season ended.
"We definitely are," Harbaugh said. "Right now we're kind of like a bull just scratching at the ground and pawing at the ground and snot bubbles coming out, snorting a little bit, ready to get started. That's where we are as a team."
The 49ers didn't overhaul anything to try and overtake the Seahawks, but they made some subtle tweaks that could pay big dividends. On offense, the 49ers added receiver Steve Johnson in a trade from Buffalo, drafted running back Carlos Hyde and receiver Bruce Ellington and are checking to see if receiver Brandon Lloyd has anything left after not playing in 2013.
On defense, San Francisco changed things up in the secondary with Antoine Bethea, Chris Cook and rookie Jimmie Ward in, and Donte Whitner out as a free agent signee in Cleveland. The 49ers also could be without Bowman until the middle of the season, and rookie Chris Borland and Michael Wilhoite will compete for the starting job until he returns.
Two significant question marks for the 49ers heading into training camp are Vernon Davis potentially holding out, and linebacker Aldon Smith's status regarding his off-field legal woes. We expect Davis to be there when it matters, but the 49ers might not know Smith's fate for the start of the season.
Best year of his career ... Colin Kaepernick
There's a lot to like about Kaepernick this season, and I would draft him as the No. 5 quarterback behind Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford. He is headed for a career season.
Assuming Davis shows up for the start of training camp, Kaepernick has a tremendous receiving corps with Michael Crabtree healthy, Anquan Boldin, Davis and the addition of Johnson. If Quinton Patton, Ellington or Lloyd do anything on top of that, then Kaepernick could be better than even I expect. The key is Crabtree.
Kaepernick showed how good he can be with Crabtree healthy since he had five games with at least 19 Fantasy points during the 12 games Crabtree was out. He then closed the season, including the playoffs, with seven of eight games with at least 19 Fantasy points when Crabtree was active. In 2012, Kaepernick had at least 20 Fantasy points in six of 10 starts – all with Crabtree.
Another key for Kaepernick is his rushing. He had at least seven Fantasy points on the ground in four of his final five games, including the playoffs, and if that happens consistently this year his value will be incredible.
Not many owners will draft Kaepernick ahead of Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, Tom Brady or even Cam Newton, which is understandable. He hasn't played at their level yet, but his time is now. And this will be a monstrous season after he just signed a new deal for six years at $126 million in June.
Future of this backfield ... Carlos Hyde
|Frank Gore||292 (276 car., 16 rec.)||38.9%|
|Anquan Boldin||87 (2 car., 85 rec.)||11.6%|
|Kendall Hunter||80 (78 car., 2 rec.)||10.7%|
|Vernon Davis||52 rec.||6.9%|
|Bruce Miller||32 (7 car., 25 rec.)||4.3%|
There are four running backs who could start for the 49ers this season and legitimately produce quality Fantasy production. It's a backfield loaded with talented options.
Frank Gore is the proven veteran, and you know what he's capable of when healthy. Kendall Hunter could shine if given a bigger role. Marcus Lattimore might be a star if he can return at 100 percent from his knee injury in college. And Carlos Hyde is the rookie with tremendous upside.
Gore, 31, isn't going anywhere this season. Yes, his role will be reduced, but he had a lesser role in 2013 as well and still produced at least 1,200 total yards and eight touchdowns for the third year in a row and six times in nine seasons. He remains a low-end No. 2 running back worth drafting in Round 5.
Hunter will probably be overshadowed by Hyde and Lattimore even though he could handle the role, but we'll put him on the bottom of the depth chart for Fantasy owners. And even Lattimore should get pushed aside until he proves his health is OK. But Hyde is someone to draft with a late-round flier in seasonal leagues, and I like him as a first-round pick in rookie-only formats. In keeper leagues, he's a mid-round pick because he could be the starter in San Francisco in 2015.
He was drafted in the second round from Ohio State after he had 523 carries for 3,198 yards and 37 touchdowns, and the 49ers aren't expected to bring back Gore next season. We could see Hyde sharing the starting job with Lattimore next season, but he could run away with the job if he has a big year backing up Gore in 2014.
Headed for a down year ... Anquan Boldin
Boldin was so good last season, but the return of Crabtree for a full season plus the addition of Johnson should lower his production. He's a bust candidate in 2014.
Boldin finished 2013 with 85 catches for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns. The catches were his best total since his last season in Arizona in 2009, his yards were his best since 2006 and he last scored seven touchdowns in 2010.
He actually played well when Crabtree returned with 35 catches for 455 yards and two touchdowns in the final five games, with at least nine Fantasy points in four of those outings. But factor in Johnson, along with some production from Patton and Ellington, and Boldin will suffer, especially going on 34 years old.
I have no problem drafting Boldin as a No. 4 Fantasy receiver, especially in PPR leagues, But he was a Top 15 receiver in standard formats in 2013, which won't happen again.
Start all your 49ers in Week 1 because the matchup against Dallas' defense should be tantalizing based on how bad the Cowboys are expected to be. The run game should continue that momentum in Week 2 against the Bears at home. Playing in the NFC West isn't easy, especially with Seattle, Arizona and St. Louis all having exceptional defenses. But the 49ers don't face the Seahawks until Week 13 (the rematch at Seattle is Week 15) and the Rams for the first time coming off a bye in Week 9. Philadelphia and Washington also have to travel to San Francisco, and the 49ers lone trip to the East Coast is at the Giants in Week 11.
Training camp battles
Who's the No. 2 running back? I expect Hyde to be the second-best running back behind Gore this season, but he has to prove he's better than Hunter and even Lattimore. Hunter might not be as explosive as Hyde, but he did score three touchdowns in his first six games last season and would be capable of a nice stat line with more touches. He also has the trust of the coaching staff, but keep an eye on Hyde if he can leap over Hunter on the depth chart. The same goes for Lattimore, who is the wild card if healthy.
What's the pecking order at receiver? We know the starters will be Crabtree, Boldin and Johnson as the Top 3 guys, but it should be interesting to see if Patton and Ellington get an extended look. Crabtree is No. 1 without a doubt, but Johnson might challenge Boldin for the No. 2 job with a strong training camp. Most likely, Crabtree and Boldin are the only receivers worth drafting in the majority of leagues.
I prefer drafting Crabtree as my No. 2 receiver in all formats, but I'm OK with him as my No. 1 option. That's because he could easily finish as a Top 10 receiver this season.
Crabtree missed the first 11 games with a ruptured Achilles last year, so he had a lost season. He still managed three games with double digits in Fantasy points in the eight games he appeared in, including the playoffs.
But go back to 2012 for a better indication of what Crabtree is capable of with Kaepernick. In the seven starts Kaepernick made in 2012, Crabtree had 41 catches for 595 yards and five touchdowns. If you project that over 16 games, Crabtree would have finished with 94 catches for 1,360 yards and 11 touchdowns. That equates to 202 Fantasy points, which would have made Crabtree the No. 3 Fantasy receiver in standard leagues behind Calvin Johnson (214) and Brandon Marshall (210).
This is also a contract year for Crabtree, and we're expecting him to play big this season. He's a great pick in Round 4 or 5, and you can definitely plan on him being a Top 15 Fantasy receiver with the chance to be Top 10 if he plays to his level of potential.