Fooch's Note: In case you missed it last year, Derek will be here all season providing fantasy football analysis. For the preseason, he'll be looking at each position, where 49ers players are going and what they're worth in your draft. Once the season gets here, he'll have weekly previews detailing your best start/sit options.
I hate July. It may be the single most frustrating month as a football fan. Everything is so close, but the days just creep along. One positive, outside of Free Slurpee and Independence Day, is fantasy football fans start warming up for draft season. If you haven't given fantasy football a try yet, you are missing out on one of the best ways to increase your football IQ and get better acquainted with the game and its various nuisances.
For the converted, there are plenty of player rankings, mock draft analysis and position breakdowns to examine. Here we'll take a slightly different approach and focus specifically on the 49ers from a fantasy perspective.
Despite a Super Bowl appearance and an offense led by one of the most intriguing quarterbacks in the league; keep in mind the 49ers are built to win real games, not the fake ones. There is draftable talent at each position, but I wouldn't classify any of these players as "elite" or "top tier". We have a pretty good idea how the depth chart will look at running back. Therefore, we'll first examine the bread & butter of the 49er offense by taking a look at the indestructible Frank Gore and where he is being drafted early in the season.
Here is an interesting line I wrote in last year's preview:
"The Niners will run the ball and run it well, but I don't see any back finishing in the fantasy top 15."
Well, I was half right. Even with a reduced workload, Frank Gore finished as the 12th best fantasy running back in 2012 (also 12th in rushing attempts). Frank turned 30 in May. A milestone commonly considered to be the beginning of the end for running backs. I'm out of the doubting Gore business, though. He is currently being drafted as the 16th running back and 24th overall. If you want him, you'll need to grab him late in the second or in the third round of most drafts since running backs will go quickly this year.
Gore again lands in RB2 territory. If he gets between 200 and 220 rushing attempts in 2013 he will be a solid option at his current average draft position. Gore's age is a concern, but the more pressing question is how will this offense operate with Colin Kaepernick and without Michael Crabtree? How Greg Roman evolves the offense to make up for the Kaepernick/Crabtree connection remains to be seen. Did we ever decide on Kaepertree or Crabernick as the official name for the duo? What we do know is that Gore will be an important part of this offense. You can safely assume Gore will get a combined 16 touches a game. It's not a great number, but with the offensive line big-boying defenses down the field it's an adequate number. This makes him a safety pick at 24th overall.
Gore is in a unique position. He is a proven asset 3 years removed from his last major injury, but he projected to be drafted in a class of running backs loaded with question marks. Here is how I stack Gore up to a few other running backs going around the same pick:
Gore (ADP 24) vs. Maurice Jones-Drew (ADP 19)
RB2 is loaded with boom or bust candidates. Not that you should entertain the idea of a "safe pick", because you can't predict what the season holds. However, you can limit your risks. When MJD comes up that's all I can think of...risks. You put MJD in the 49er backfield and you have a top 8 running back. You put him on the Jaguars and you have a potential star lacking a supporting cast to achieve his potential. How I see it: Gore has a better offense, better supporting cast, is healthier and, for what it's worth, he only faces a top 12 rushing defense 5 times all year (Seattle twice, Houston, Buccaneers and the Redskins).
I'm avoiding MJD this year. The team has no QB and he missed the majority of the 2012 season with a foot injury. He is a great talent in an unattractive position. Gore lacks MJD's upside, but he is in a far better position to help your fantasy team on a weekly basis.
Gore (24) vs. Chris Johnson (17)
Nothing is guaranteed when drafting a player. Unless you draft a NY Jet, then I guarantee you regret by the barrel full. The big gambles are on guys like Chris Johnson, who was the definition of boom or bust in 2012. He showed flashes of CJ2K, evidenced in his 195 yards in week 7 along with 4 other 120+ yard efforts. He also caused owners to fill up swear jars at a record pace weeks 1-3, 5,13,14,16 and 17 when he never eclipsed 56 yards rushing, including a putrid 4 yards week 1 and a 28 yard effort week 16.
Gore is a steady yet unspectacular option. He won't reach pinball status with his fantasy points, but he has the best offensive line in the league and a coordinator who loves to run. If you are looking for low risk with your second running back, look no further.
If Chris Johnson and Gore are both on the board when you need a RB2, I would lean towards Johnson. His offensive line has improved, I expect Locker to have a better year and, unlike MJD, he can stay on the field.
Gore (24) vs. DeMarco Murray (27)
You can expect that Gore's touches will drop again this season, but that trend has been addition by subtraction for the 8 year veteran. Murray has a higher ceiling with Bill Callahan aiming to emphasize the run in Dallas. The issue with Murray is his durability, or lack thereof. When he was on the field in 2012, he didn't deliver on draft day expectations. He wasn't horrible in PPR formats, but he only broke the 100 yard rushing mark once in 10 games and totaled 4 touchdowns. Sure, this could be the year DeMarco becomes a consistent threat, but minimize your risks and take Gore if it comes down to it.
Gore (24) vs. Reggie Bush (23)
The Saint turned Dolphin jumps back to the NFC and dome living in Detroit. PPR leaguers should draft Bush here and keep moving. It's the standard formats where we find the pickle between he and Gore. These two veterans seem to have shaken their "injury prone" tags of the past, both playing at least 15 games in 2011 and 2012. Detroit's pass heavy scheme gives me pause, but Bush's receiving yards should help with any decline in rushing. A new environment with a better QB and overall offense should suit him well. I doubt he sees the 80+ receptions he brought in during his rookie year, but you have to love his skill set in Detroit's offense.
Here is how I rank the 4 overall in standard formats:
*My projected stats for Gore's 2013 season: 210 rush attempts, 1080 rushing yards, 26 receptions, 8 total TDs
Gore should once again dominate the touches in the 49er backfield, but Kendall Hunter is a solid add in super deep leagues (14+ teams) with WR/RB flex options. The third year back should be good to go come training camp and get significant action week-to-week. Even though Gore has been durable over the last two seasons you should strongly consider Kendall as a handcuff back. Hunter makes a good insurance pick later in drafts when you are looking for lottery tickets (players who come at a low price, but could yield huge benefits). This also depends on how the waiver system in your league works. If it is auction based, then you can skip Hunter in 10-12 team leagues. If you are in a league where the spoils go to who can get to the computer first, then play it safe and try to get Hunter on your team.
The explosive rookie running back filled in nicely for Kendall Hunter after his injury, seeing solid action for a backup. After seeing his first action in week 12, James averaged almost 7 rushing attempts per game with an admirable 4.6 yards per run. This was similar to Hunter's workload with a .6 less yards per attempt. He figures to be involved from week 1 this year, but it is hard to predict how he will fit in with 2 healthy running backs with more experience in front of him. LJ is too far down the depth chart to draft at the beginning of the season, but keep him on your Watch List as we get a better idea of his role.
That about covers it for the San Francisco running game for fantasy purposes. Did I leave out a running back that you would like to compare to Gore? Leave a comment and we'll discuss other RB2 options to help everyone get ready for the draft.