Colin Kaepernick has legs that can move quickly, but he’s lost his primary wide receiver who also has crazy legs. Panic? No, don’t panic.
Notable Additions: Anquan Boldin
Notable Draft Picks: Vance McDonald, Quinton Patton
The Marquee Men (the elitest of the elite)
Frank Gore (ADP: 23.6): Let’s reflect back on a sad time in our lives, a time during the summer of 2011 when we believed Gore was beginning the gradual spiral into running back darkness.
At that time, he had missed nine games over the previous three years, and he had only logged one full 16-game season. Unlike many of his peers, overuse and abuse wasn’t a problem, as even now Gore has only one +300 carry season in his eight years (312 carries in 2006, still a single-season high). There was particular angst towards him during that fateful summer following only 853 rushing yards in 2010 due to five missed games, and that came after a draft season when he was selected with the sixth overall pick on average. You hated this jerk, and it showed as his ADP then fell by over a full round.
Now he’s played 16 games in two straight seasons, with some mighty fine rushing totals considering his highly-managed workload. He rushed for over 1,200 yards in both 2011 and 2012, even though this past season he averaged a career low 16.1 carries per game (excluding his rookie year). That’s what you’re purchasing here: consistency — especially now with defenses dealing with the read-option — and still some element of risk. As long as you’re sure to handcuff Kendall Hunter, you can feel pretty good about Gore as your RB2.
Vernon Davis (ADP: 57.8): With both Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham out, Colin Kaepernick has to throw to…someone. That’s why I’m mostly inclined to ignore Davis’ numbers last year and the horror they brought down upon us, and remember that until at least Week 12 when Crabtree likely returns, the man who has befriended Chucky will be targeted on every throw (possibly only a slight exaggeration).
Initially there was a supreme lack of familiarity between Kaepernick and Davis when the second-year quarterback first took over for Alex Smith, which is what led to only 61 receiving yards for Davis over the 49ers’ final six games, when he was only targeted 12 times. But oh, there was also hope, as then Davis accumulated 254 yards over the three-game march to the Super Bowl at a pace of 21.2 yards per catch, and his reception rate per route run improved from nine percent to 16 percent, according to ESPN’s Ken Daube.
Throughout OTAs and training camp we heard repeated rumors of Davis being used almost exclusively as a wide receiver, though that may have been the product of offseason boredom (crazy, I know). Still, the mere fact that he spent even a portion of the offseason as a wideout shows Davis’ vast versatility, and gives us hope that any chemistry imbalance between quarterback and tight end that led to only 10.2 yards per game between weeks 12 and 17 last year is a distant memory.
Colin Kaepernick (ADP: 65.9): Kaepernick more than has the ability to compensate for the loss of Crabtree with his legs, and unique fit as a read-option quarterback. But damn, we’ll miss you, Crab.
The numbers are scary: Kaepernick had a passer rating of 139.7 while throwing to Crabtree, he was targeted on 39.6 percent of his routes run with Kaep as the starter, and overall on 90 of Kaepernick’s 272 pass attempts. Kaepernick also targeted Crabtree three times more on third down than any other receiver.
So yeah, all of that really sucks, as does losing Crabtree’s after the catch ability which compiles yardage for Kaepernick too. But in this 49ers offense the damage control may be a little easier, because the wide receiver position isn’t something Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman lean on that heavily. As Chase Stuart notes in an exhaustive examination of Davis’ potential switch to wide receiver that in truth isn’t really a switch at all, the 49ers averaged only 1.8 wide receivers in use per play last year. That’s less than two, which means that although Kaepernick will clearly miss Crabtree’s speed and deep ability, Roman can and will shift to more two tight end sets, and feature a mix of Davis and Quiton Patton in the slot.
Put a little more simply: worry a bit, but then go ahead and draft Kaepernick right around where you normally would anyway.
Michael Crabtree (ADP: undrafted): Like Percy Harvin earlier this week, I feel obligated to at least make passing mention of Crabtree. Because like Percy Harvin, Crabtree will play at some point this year, and ideally for the 49ers he’ll return late in the season around Week 12, and be warmly embraced during the stretch drive to the playoffs. And if that happens, well, great. But it does nothing for us, the degenerates.
If you’d like to make a waiver claim on Crabtree around Week 11 when we hear word that he’s on his way back and has sufficiently recovered from his Achilles injury (he was placed on the PUP list this week, an expected formality), then go ahead. That’s a fine, low cost move with the potential for a significant reward during the fantasy playoffs.
But please, don’t waste a draft pick on him. After bouncing around the Internet’s various ADPs here in late August it doesn’t look like any of you are, which is wonderful. Keep doing that.
The Middle Men (middle-to-late round options)
Anquan Boldin (ADP: 78.5): In Baltimore last year, Boldin was primarily lined up in the slot, where he was used on 62.2 percent of his snaps according to Pro Football Focus. If he can’t change his game and get separation on the outside (doubtful) that’s concerning, because again, this is a team that uses few receivers, and rarely three.
Expecting Boldin to step in and replace Crabtree’s production may be a little foolish, because we’re discussing two vastly different approaches to the wide receiver position. One is rooted in speed and missed tackles in the open field, and the other brute force and physicality. Boldin is the latter, and normally, I’d say that the Niners already have one of those guys in Davis, and the new guy then could easily lose that battle for targets up the middle. But due to the simple lack of depth and reliable options elsewhere to target, Boldin maintains his status as a fine WR3, but little more.
The Menial Peons (sleepers, flex plays, and matchup plays)
Kyle Williams/Quinton Patton/Jon Baldwin (ADP: all undrafted): Until we’re graced with the triumphant return of the Crab, the Niners receivers could be a little messy in the early going beyond Boldin, which is reflected in the haphazard grouping here. There may be a No. 2 in name only and it’ll likely be Kyle Williams to start, though Patton will receive plenty of looks from the slot as he did during Week 3 of the preseason against the Vikings while catching four passes for 35 yards and a touchdown.
If you’re chucking objects in the dark and you’re in a position to pursue a 49ers receiver in a deep league, make it Patton. Though he’s better suited for the slot, he has plenty of speed to burn out wide and he’s perhaps the best vertical option available with Crabtree and Manningham out.
The Mop-Up Men (deeeep sleepers and handcuffs)
Kendall Hunter (ADP: 154.0): Gore has been so effective for so long partly because as his age climbs, Harbaugh is smartly managing the dents in his chassis, giving him a sufficient workload but not an overbearing one. That’s why our boy Hunter here is a little more than just your standard handcuff, though he’s pretty important in that role too.
Hunter struggled through injuries last year and missed five games, but despite that absence he had 371 rushing yards in his moderate relief appearances (72 carries, for a 5.2 YPC). LaMichael James’ time will come too, and he may hold some sliver of value in deep PPR leagues. But right now, Hunter is both a required asset for Gore owners, and quite possibly the highest producing backup running back who isn’t named Ben Tate.