Optimism is tough to come by with the San Francisco 49ers these days. NFL Media's Elliot Harrison had the 49ers as the 31st ranked team in the NFL in his preseason power rankings. Strength of schedule aficionado Warren Sharp projects them for just six wins in his 2016 season preview magazine. After a great run under Jim Harbaugh in the early days of his tenure, the 49ers roster is now a shell of its once marveled strength.
While there's no denying that 49ers don't have much hope to be a winning organization this year, we don't get fantasy points for a team's wins. We get fantasy points for offensive production brought on by the opportunity given to them in their offense.
You can believe what you will about the 49ers new head coach, and there are certainly plenty of reasons to validate the negative perception many have of Chip Kelly's ability to run a team. What is undeniable is the volume he pumps into his offensive units and the trickle down effect it has to the skill position players.
Over the last three seasons, Chip Kelly's teams ranked 13th (2013), 1st (2014) and 2nd (2015) in plays run among NFL offenses. In that same span, the 49ers ranked 31st (2013), 21st (2014) and 30th (2015) in plays run. On average the last three years, Kelly's teams ran 114 more plays per season than the 49ers.
Kelly's approach is a stark difference from what the 49ers experienced last season, and even dating back to Jim Harbaugh's offense. He wants his offenses to play fast, put stress on the defense and run a ton of plays. Even when the wheels fell off in his final year, the Eagles still finished second in the NFL in plays per game.
Kelly's high-paced offense created a rising tide for all skill position players in Philadelphia, allowing for more opportunities for carries, targets and the subsequent production. The Eagles had a wide receiver score inside the top 24 five times in Kelly's three seasons, one of which was the mercurial Riley Cooper. Both DeSean Jackson (2013) and Jeremy Maclin (2014) enjoyed career years and finished in the top-10 receivers under Kelly. The running game was a big boon before the DeMarco Murray disaster in 2015, as LeSean McCoy finished as the RB2 and 12 overall in back-to-back seasons. The quarterbacks and tight ends were solid streamers, as well.
The personnel is certainly not as strong in San Francisco but all of those Eagles players, especially the quarterbacks and receivers, reached new statistical heights playing in Chip Kelly's voluminous offense. There's no question that the rising tide of production Kelly brings to his skill position players will boost his new group in San Francisco as well. However, with a cast of unknowns and question marks, we need to dig deep to decipher who will benefit most. When we look back at season's end, I predict we'll see that at least two 49ers offensive players will return major fantasy football value.
The quarterback quandary
While the competition certainly looks open, it's fair to note that the Santa Rosa Press Democrat theorized that the 49ers "want Gabbert to be the starting quarterback and the face of the franchise" and for Kaepernick to "fade into the background, drop off the edge." That accompanied many positive reports out of OTAs that Gabbert was excelling in practices.
Despite his earned reputation as a draft bust with the Jacksonville Jaguars, fantasy owners should be rooting for Gabbert to seize the job. Gabbert averaged just 14 fantasy points and 250 passing yards per game last season as the starter. Much of that was due to volume necessitated by the 49ers finishing 28th in the NFL in time spent trailing.
With the 49ers projected to be chasing in the vast majority of their games, we can expect a harmonious marriage between necessitated passing and the volume Kelly's offense will bring. It may seem laughable, but Gabbert could provide sneaky streamer value. We all remember Nick Foles' wild outlier 2013 season where he threw 27 touchdowns to just two interceptions and averaged 20 fantasy points per game. That's an extreme projection for any quarterback, but the fact that Kelly's offense vaulted a quarterback who was revealed to be below-average to those statistical heights is a reminder of the potential. At worst, Gabbert can maintain a near 15-point per game average that Mark Sanchez held in this offense during relief duties in 2014.
A backfield with a PPR sleeper
However, there's more to running back production than just being good at running the ball. Just like last season, Hyde enters 2016 attached to questionable quarterbacking, a bad team and owns a questionable role in the passing game. The big back only has 23 NFL career catches to his name and only hauled in 34 in college.
Hyde is a fine value in the fourth round of fantasy drafts, where his ADP currently sits. However, he's by far the most expensive member of this offense. If you're looking to pluck 49ers, you might want to consider digging a bit deeper. The team projects to be in a ton of game scripts that preclude them from pounding the ball with Hyde. We're also not sure what to make of Chip Kelly's use of running backs after he jettisoned the effective LeSean McCoy and replaced him with a declining DeMarco Murray, whom Kelly went on to badly misuse as an outside runner. Hyde is a great upside play week-to-week but could come with major volatility when the 49ers get knocked of game script.
Back in June, ESPN 49ers reporter Michael Wagaman predictedShaun Draughn would see "plenty of playing time" in San Francisco's passing-back role. Draughn caught 25 passes in six games for the 49ers last season after joining the team on waivers. He was effective on those touches and averaged 7.0 yards per reception.
The longtime offensive-minded Kelly has a history of specializing roles in his backfield, and the 49ers did bring back Draughn after they inked their new coach. Draughn led the 49ers in third-down snaps last season (25.8 percent), despite playing only six games with the team. He should threaten to do so again and could return sneaky PPR flex value at best, and sap Hyde's upside at worst.
Of all the 2015 stats that are not likely to repeat this season, Torrey Smith's 33 catches are the most obvious to spot. Smith fell victim to a striking lack of volume last season in a snail-like slow 49ers offense. This year, Smith steps into the No. 1 speed X-receiver role in Kelly's offense, the same position Jackson and Maclin thrived in.
Jackson was an effective player before Kelly's arrival but hit his career-best in catches, yards and touchdowns in 2013. He's yet to approach those numbers in Washington. Maclin never broke 1,000 yards prior to playing with Kelly, and his 143 targets in 2014 were 21 more than he had at any point preceding that season. The duo averaged 134 targets over those two seasons and with the departure of recent staples like Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin, there are 131 vacated targets in the San Francisco offense.
Smith should lead this team in all relevant receiving categories this season. His Reception Perception evaluation revealed that Smith still beat both man and zone coverage at an above league average rate, and was particularly effective on go and slant routes. He'll run those routes with regularity in Kelly's offense and the volume the coach brings will provide the targets to go along with his strong play.
Torrey Smith is a tremendous value at his Round 9 ADP on fantasy football calculator and a complete and utter steal if he falls any further. Smith was a regular in the top-23 fantasy receivers prior to last season, and has a chance to hit that mark again if he gets 135 or more targets in 2016. He's a lock for 120 and a top-40 season, either way.
There's another sleeper even further down the line among the San Francisco wideouts in South Carolina product Bruce Ellington. I had Ellington on my must-own wide receivers list primarily due to all the praise Chip Kelly heaped on him since taking over the job and his locked-in spot as the team's slot receiver. The drumbeat continued into training camp as Matt Barrows asserted that Ellington "appears to be a major component and is in excellent position to be the 49ers' breakout player on offense."
The slot position role in Chip Kelly's offense could hold major value for the 49ers offense, as it did for Philadelphia. Per Pro Football Focus, Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews ran 533 routes from the slot last season, second most among NFL receivers. Matthews racked up 229 targets in his two years playing under Chip Kelly, a position the head coach specifically drafted him to fill. There's no guarantee that Kelly just rolls over that position to his new team, but at least there's a precedent for opportunity here.
Ellington was a star athlete at South Carolina, playing on the basketball team before joining the football, before crushing the NFL Scouting Combine workouts prior to his draft day. Despite a lack of involvement in the 49ers offense the last two years, a peek into his route-running through his Reception Perception shows he can play at the NFL level.
With Torrey Smith being the only established pass-catcher on the roster, he's almost a lock to crack 120 targets thanks to the volume Kelly will bring. However, that volume has to spill over to the other players on the roster. Ellington has the offseason drumbeat and on-field ability to firmly assert that he'll be the No. 2 pass-catcher on this roster. At a completely free asking price in fantasy, Ellington is well-worth a final round stash. He's a threat to snare 70 or more catches and be a breakout player this season. If Riley Cooper could do it in 2013, there's no reason Bruce Ellington can't establish himself. I'm 100 percent in on Bruce Ellington as a breakout player this year.
Any tight end to note?
Right now, we don't have a firm answer to this question. However, our own "Franchise" made a convincing case that Vance McDonald is a late-round tight end to target. As Franchise noted, McDonald took a major step forward once Blaine Gabbert took over last season. He averaged five targets per game and caught all three of his touchdowns in the last six games.
If McDonald can grab and hold this job, he could provide steaming value to those who punt the tight end positon or be a DFS value play in shootout games. Brent Celek (2013) and Zach Ertz (2014) were the TE15 and TE14, respectively, and had their fair share of big games despite splitting time at the position. However, should he falter, look for athletic quarterback convert, Blake Bell, to push him while Garrett Celek might stay on the field as a blocker.