2018 Team Preview: San Francisco 49ers

(Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire)

To quote The Rock… “FINALLY, A QUARTERBACK HAS COME BACK TO SAN FRANCISCO!”

Ok, that’s not entirely accurate. Since Montana, Young, and Jeff Garcia departed, the 49ers have been “graced” under center with a string of misfits such as Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey, and Shaun Hill, as well as Alex Smith (twice), Trent Dilfer, Colin Kaepernick (also twice – reruns are big in SF, apparently), Blaine Gabbert (yeah, that happened), Brian Hoyer (that happened, too), and C.J. Beathard.

With the exception of a moment or two with Smith and the fleeting supernova that was 2012-2013 Kaepernick, the only notable event performed by a Niners QB in recent seasons was, apparently for some, taking a knee.

That all changed with the arrival of Jimmy Garoppolo (aka “Jimmy GQ” or “The Franchise” as he’s now called by his teammates). GM John Lynch and new Head Coach Kyle Shanahan had already begun to change the team culture, and fantasy relevance, of the organization after 3 years of Cleveland Browns-esque dysfunction and ineptitude following Jim Harbaugh’s ignominious exit in the wake of the 2014 season, and Garoppolo has become the most important piece of the puzzle.

The Jimmy G hype, and inevitable Express and, obviously, GQ cover ads, are real, and the 49ers should produce some exciting, young fantasy players this season despite facing one of the hardest schedules against the pass rush and a challenging slate of defenses overall.

Let’s begin with the most important position on the field.

 

QB (1) Jimmy Garoppolo

Currently, Garoppolo’s consensus ADP according to Fantasy Pros sits at 84 overall in standard leagues and about 100 overall in PPR leagues, making him roughly the 8th or 9th QB taken off the board. That number could rise as the breakout buzz begins to build. So the question is whether it’s worth the price tag to grab a quarterback who threw 7 TDs and 5 INTs in just five starts last year, and who only has 7 career starts total.

According to Football Outsiders, the 49ers under Jimmy Garoppolo were better than the Patriots (Brady), Saints (Brees), Rams (Goff), and Steelers (Roethlisberger) in points per drive and yards per drive, while Jimmy’s QB DVOA (39.2%) topped Brady (27.9%), Brees (26.7%), and Wentz (24.3%).

His yards per attempt was better than Deshaun Watson, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees. PFF’s Efficiency and Accuracy Under Pressure Rating placed Garoppolo (71.4%) above Brady and Brees with a higher YPA. You can see what cool under pressure looks like here. Additionally, 35% of Jimmy’s throws graded out as positive attempts (better than Wentz and Brady). His passer rating actually got better each quarter, with his highest rating being in the 4th quarter (an insane 133.7). In fact, his highest rating was when the team was tied or behind, rather than ahead. He was also #1 in football in pressured completion percentage.

Finally, Jimmy Garoppolo passed Kurt Warner and set an NFL record for most passing yards (1,250) by a quarterback in his first 4 starts for a team while throwing to a bunch of rookies and Marquise Goodwin as his number one receiver, a group of pass catchers that ranked 31st in average yards of separation last season. Oh, and he did it behind an offensive line protection rate that was second to last in the NFL (percentage of passes in which he was hurried, sacked, hit, or forced to throw in less than 4 seconds).

The 7 TDs in 5 games may not scream elite to you, but the underlying metrics all point to a quarterback with elite attributes, playing in a system tailor made for him, coordinated by a Head Coach known for his offensive genius, surrounded by an improved offensive line and better, more experienced, and more explosive talent than a year ago. He’s had an entire offseason with the playbook and time to build chemistry with the entire offense. And the one glaring weakness (poor completion percentage on deep balls) has been a point of emphasis throughout OTAs and Training Camp.

The sample size is small. But the skills are BIG. That doesn’t mean he’s poised for a top 5 QB finish … at least, it’s not likely this season, anyway. A tough schedule and more tape for opposing defensive coordinators to digest all offseason may prevent Garoppolo from finishing higher than a top 8-10 fantasy quarterback, but he should return the investment on his current ADP, even if you can find better value drafting a QB later who is capable of putting up similar yardage and TD totals (and perhaps even better rushing numbers).  For now, it’s best to consider Jimmy G a low end QB1 and try not to overdraft him at the most replaceable position in fantasy.

 

RB(2) Jerick McKinnon

Nicknamed “Jet” in college because of his 4.1 speed, Jerick McKinnon was a former 3rd round pick who came out of college with one of the highest SPARQ scores in the last two decades. For those of you unfamiliar with SPARQ, a metric developed by Nike to measure a player’s athletic ability, it doesn’t include intangibles like vision the ability, elusive ratings, or tackle breaking ability, but rather paints a picture of pure athleticism. An average NFL skill position player typically checks in at a 110 pSPARQ. The better athletes post a score of 120, and the truly good ones average 130. The elite athletes produce a 140 score. The 150+ range is reserved for freaks of nature (think Calvin Johnson).

Jerick McKinnon put up a 147.5 SPARQ score. For comparison sake, the ultra-talented Saquon Barkley, the consensus top running back of the 2018 class, posted a 116.79 SPARQ score. This is not to say that McKinnon is or will be a better running back than Barkley. As mentioned before, a back’s vision, ability to hit the hole, break tackles, catch the ball, and many other skills all work in concert to make a player great at the position. What McKinnon’s SPARQ score does reveal is that he’s an athletic freak who can do things with the ball in his hands that few have the athleticism to do. Add in the fact that McKinnon was hand-picked this offseason by Kyle Shanahan and given a contract that makes him the fourth-highest-paid running back in football, and it’s easy to see that Shanahan has a plan to maximize McKinnon’ physical gifts.

(Side note: If you place value on SPARQ, Nick Chubb, drafted by the Browns with the 3rd pick in the second round, put up a 143.91 SPARQ score, though he isn’t as elusive as McKinnon and lacks the pass catching chops as well.)

The Shanahan system has always been running back-friendly, and it’s one that typically peppers backs with catches. This bodes well for a multi-dimensional runner like McKinnon, who averaged 8.3 yards per reception last season. In fact, from Week 11 on, McKinnon was PFF’s 9th-graded running back, and his Elusive Rating ranked 12th best. So, he’s more than just an athlete. He’s also strong (32 reps on the bench press during the combine), so he should still see the ball near the goal line if he’s in the game.

All that being said, there is some downside with McKinnon. His skillset as a runner remains a work in progress. Consider how Frank Gore, a recent predecessor with the red and gold, lacked McKinnon’s freakish athletic traits but used elite vision and burst through the hole, coupled with tackle breaking ability, to assemble a Hall of Fame worthy career. McKinnon still has some ways to go to develop as a complete tailback, yet it’s likely going to cost a second-round pick to secure his services, especially in PPR leagues, so forget about any “sleeper” status or draft day discounts. That’s a tall order for a former committee-player who has never topped 160 carries in a single season, and in truth, probably won’t ever be a bell cow in San Francisco given Shanahan’s affinity for deploying two running backs that seamlessly make his offense hum. Expect Matt Breida to operate as 1B to McKinnon’s 1A in the same way Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were used when Shanahan coordinated the Falcons offense in 2016.

Still, it’s already been proven that Shanahan’s offense can support two top-24 backs on the same team, and while that’s unlikely to happen this season, McKinnon should finish as a high end RB2 with RB1 upside, especially in PPR leagues.

UPDATE: Jerick McKinnon tore his ACL on a non-contact play in practice. The 49ers signed Alfred Morris off the street. Upon first glance, it would not seem to be notable until you recall that in 5 games started for Dallas last season, Morris averaged 4.8 yards per attempt with a long rush of 70 yards on one carry. While not known for his receiving chops, Alf also reeled in 7 of 9 targets for 45 yards as well, though he should not be expected to be a consistent contributor in the passing game the way McKinnon would have been. People forget that Morris is still only 29, and he is very familiar with Kyle Shanahan’s system from their time together in Washington, where Morris was a two-time Pro Bowler and ran for over 1,000 yards three consecutive years. It’s been four years since the two paired together for that kind of prolific production, but Morris’ comfort and previous success in the scheme should afford him the chance to produce low-end RB2 numbers in standard leagues. He will most likely earn the heavy side of a timeshare with Matt Breida, assuming the 49ers don’t bring someone else in via trade or waiver claim. Additionally, expect fullback Kyle Juszcyk to help pick up the slack a bit in the passing down, as Breida tied for the NFL lead in drops last year on only 36 targets.

 

RB(3) Matt Breida

An undrafted free agent last year, Matt Breida is an ideal FLEX play with RB2 upside in PPR leagues with McKinnon going down for the season. Breida should frequently get multiple offensive series to himself, in addition to spelling Alfred Morris on early downs. As such, he will operate much in the same way Tevin Coleman did for Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta, and that has standalone value. However, Breida remains a work-in-progress as a pass catcher, with 5 drops on 36 passes thrown his way last season.

In his rookie year, Breida averaged 4.4 yards per carry on his 105 totes (10th best YPC rate in the league) and 8.6 yards per reception. He’s a threat after the catch as well, with 137 of his 180 receiving yards coming post-reception. He averaged nearly 7 carries a game last year, and that number may rise this season, especially since the team does not see Morris as a bell cow. Finally, he also ranked 13th in the NFC in rushes (17) of over 10 yards. 

 

WR(2) Pierre Garcon

Pierre Garcon’s most prolific season, with Kirk Cousins in 2013 while in Washington, happened with Kyle Shanahan calling plays, and it produced 113 receptions for over 1,300 yards, but Garcon is now 32 and coming off a season-ending neck injury. There’s considerable risk that re-injury could cost him significant time this season. Further dampening the prospects for a big season is the fact that he never took an in-game snap with Garoppolo under center last year, and in fact, had never practiced with him before this year. It may take some time to build that chemistry, especially after Garoppolo was so successful targeting Marquise Goodwin and Trent Taylor in his absence. Garoppolo may rely on him for short yardage and 3rd down conversion throws since the #1 receiver in Shanahan’s offense plays both inside and outside, but Garcon has never been a big red zone presence (career high in TDs is 6). Garcon is certainly capable of putting together a solid season, especially in PPR formats, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Goodwin, who made huge strides in his overall game last season with Garoppolo, outproduce him. If you can get Garcon for a low-end WR2 or WR3 price, then there’s excellent value there. However, if your league wants to value him as a low end WR1 or high end WR2, then it’s probably prudent to fade Garcon and find better value elsewhere.

 

WR (3) Marquise Goodwin

Marquise Goodwin comes with similar health risks (6 documented concussions, including 2 last year on brutal hits). He was Garoppolo’s favorite target during his that electric five game run, posting WR1 numbers, but the passing game funneled more through Pierre Garcon when both were healthy at the same time and C.J. Beathard was under center. Goodwin’s role in Shanahan’s offense is to stretch the perimeter (the dude can flat out fly) and keep defenses honest so the run game can thrive and open up the play action. If healthy, he presents weekly WR3 value with WR2 upside most weeks, especially since he demonstrated last season that was more than a one-trick pony.

(Because everyone loves side notes as much as side dishes: Dante Pettis was a surprising 2nd round pick in this year’s draft, and the 49ers traded up for him, believing he can play all three receiver spots in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Initially, he’ll probably serve as the team’s primary punt returner, considering he can also jet {noticing a theme here?} and led the nation in return scores as a collegiate {setting an NCAA record with 9 punt return TDs}. Given the injury concerns present with both Garcon and Goodwin, Pettis may have sneaky value as a deep league sleeper or late round flier. At the very least, be prepared to pounce on him with a waiver claim if injuries strike or he wrestles the slot position away from incumbent Trent Taylor.)

 

TE(2) George Kittle

George Kittle will be generating some breakout buzz this season after posting numbers in his rookie season (43 receptions, 515 yards, 2 TDs) that compared favorably, and in some cases nearly identical, to the first season numbers accrued by Zach Ertz, Jordan Reed, Greg Olsen, Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, and even Rob Gronkowski, though Gronk scored 10 TDs his rookie year. In two of Garoppolo’s five games, Kittle netted 50-or-more receiving yards, including a 4-100 Week 17 against the Rams.

Kittle focused on adding muscle mass this offseason to help him avoid the various injuries that plagued him last season, and that mass should help make him an even bigger red zone threat. Go figure, Kittle got hurt in the first preseason game already, and while it shouldn’t jeopardize his Week 1 status, it’s something to keep in mind if you’re planning to strike gold while taking a TE late. Kittle also led the team in red zone targets, and since we’ve mentioned SPARQ before, we should establish that he produced the highest SPARQ score of the 2017 TE draft class (higher than David Njoku, Evan Engram, and O.J. Howard). Kittle might possess the best potential for those waiting to draft a TE after the top-5, hoping to catch TE1 upside in a bottle. Let’s just hope he can stay healthy.

 

CONCLUSION

After finishing 6-10 from an 0-9 start last year, Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers look poised to make a jump in the NFC West, and their two games against Sean McVay’s Rams should produce fireworks as the game’s best offensive minds clash. I expect it to become the premiere matchup in football starting this season. Shanahan’s offense always produces prolific fantasy stats for running backs, receivers, and quarterbacks. This season should be no different and, in fact, could be the beginning of big things to come.  

There should finally be a buzz inside Levi’s Stadium this season, so a quarterback won’t be the only thing that’s BACK in San Francisco this year.

Paul Ghiglieri

Avid 49er fan from the Bay who now lives in LA and has way too much fun watching the No Fun League. A bit jealous the Seahawks have Pearl Jam. Screenwriter and Educator who loves to moonlight as a fantasy analyst. Broke into the league in '94 with Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, and Kurt Warner. Drafted as a fantasy armchair quarterback. Been playing ever since.

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