Approaching San Francisco's Exciting but Unproven Offense
San Francisco has all the ingredients for an intriguing, difficult-to-parse fantasy situation this season: a young quarterback coming off a major injury, three talented running backs, a group of wild card receivers and an other-worldly tight end.
The 49ers' 2018 ended in Week 3 with Jimmy Garoppolo going down, but a fully healthy squad makes for some interesting fantasy opportunities this season.
Who is Jimmy Garoppolo?
Garoppolo generated a ton of buzz coming into 2018 after leading San Francisco to five straight wins to close out the 2017 season. He averaged over 300 yards a game in those five starts and completed over 70% of his throws in three of them. He looked like the Tom Brady understudy who would finally excel after leaving New England (no offense to Ryan Mallett).
Then last season happened. San Francisco sandwiched a narrow home victory against Detroit with two losses on the road to Minnesota and Kansas City. Not a shocking start given the competition, but worrisome considering Garoppolo's performance.
The young signal caller completed less than 60% of his throws and had a 5:3 TD:INT ratio. Those numbers are depressed by a brutal performance against the Vikings, but Garoppolo didn't light it up in the other two games by any means. His season then came to a close when he tore his ACL in the waning minutes of the loss to the Chiefs.
So which Garoppolo can we expect in 2019?
It likely depends on how often and effectively San Francisco pushes the ball down the field through the air. Garoppolo was third in the league in air yards across his five starts in 2017, but fell to 18th over his three appearances last season. Part of this may have been due to shoddy protection, as Garoppolo was sacked 13 times in 2018 after going down just eight times the previous year.
Better offensive line play and a commitment to downfield passing, which head coach Kyle Shanahan has shown a commitment to in previous years (see: Matt Ryan), would make Garoppolo a backend QB1 and viable in all leagues. ACL injuries are scary, but his recovery has gone well and fortunately he went down early, so he's had plenty of time to rehab.
Too many RBs
One of the most devastating moves of the offseason in terms of fantasy value was Tevin Coleman signing with the 49ers. Finally free of the timeshare in Atlanta, Coleman had the opportunity to shine as a feature back somewhere, but ended up in San Francisco with fellow talented RBs Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida.
This situation is similar to Indianapolis, with a group of young, capable backs who could each emerge as a solid fantasy contributor. The Colts' backs have clear specialties though, with well-defined bruiser, pass-catcher and workhorse roles. San Francisco? All these guys can do everything well, which makes this a sticky situation and one that will require caution in drafts.
McKinnon was the 49ers' big acquisition last offseason, but never played a snap with the team after tearing his ACL on the final day of practice. His salary became guaranteed on April 1, so it seems he'll be back in 2019.
Breida battles his own injuries through the season, but filled in admirably for McKinnon and finished as a top-25 RB in standard scoring, just missing the cutoff in PPR (RB26).
Shanahan coached Coleman in Atlanta, and the Falcons' situation might be the best comp here. Either McKinnon or Coleman will take the Devonta Freeman role as the lead back, the loser gets the Coleman role, and Breida plays the Ito Smith role. In short, not ideal for fantasy owners. Even if this is the breakdown, it probably won't be as clean as the Atlanta situation, where Freeman is a fringe RB1, Coleman was a safe RB2 and Smith an occasional flex play/bench lottery ticket.
This backfield will have to be closely monitored during the offseason and training camp for who may emerge as the favorite for carries. McKinnon and Coleman should be drafted like the latter in recent years, an RB2 with significant upside if the other gets injured. Breida deserved to be rostered in deeper leagues but like Smith, he needs injuries or a revised carry distribution to be relevant.
Several deep threats and Jordan Matthews
The San Francisco receiving corps may somehow be more complicated than their running backs. Marquise Goodwin disappointed in his follow-up campaign after nearly topping 1,000 receiving yards in 2017, slowed by injuries and the emergence of Dante Pettis. The 49ers recently signed Jordan Matthews and still have guys like Trent Taylor, Kendrick Bourne and Richie James who could factor in.
Pettis only had 27 catches in his rookie season, but made the most of them, averaging over 17 yards per catch and reeling in five touchdowns. Goodwin put up similar totals with 23 receptions and four scores, while Bourne led the receivers with 42 catches and 487 yards. Now Matthews joins the mix as a possession guy with limited upside.
Pettis and Goodwin are the most exciting options, but that's quite relative. Neither will see the volume necessary to have sustained success unless one of them get injured, which is entirely possible but tough to count on. Bourne likely emerges with injuries to the other two, but will now have to battle Matthews for targets.
This seems like a situation to stay out of entirely. Garoppolo's return should lift everyone, and each will likely have some big moments, but those will be next to impossible to predict.
The YAC Beast
Finally a clear-cut situation. George Kittle is a monster and there's no questioning his talent or role in this offense. The question is how soon to draft him, especially in relation to the other two elite tight ends.
Kittle finished as TE3 in PPR scoring, but edged Zach Ertz as TE2 in standard. He led the position in yardage and had two (!!!) 85-yard touchdown catches. Kittle, Ertz and Travis Kelce are in a clear tier by themselves atop the tight end position and are all worth second- or third-round picks.
Kelce should probably be the first tight end of the board given his role in one of the best offenses in the league. He was comfortably TE1 in all formats and shouldn't make it out of the second round of drafts.
Ertz vs. Kittle likely depends on format, as the former led the position with 116 receptions, nearly 30 more than the latter. Both have similar touchdown potential, but Kittle's open-field prowess gives him the edge in yardage. They likely go at the backend of the second round and early third round in drafts, flip-flopped based on PPR or standard.