The 2011 NFL season kicks off on Thursday when the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints open the season. The rest of the league gets going Sunday and Monday, which means fantasy football is finally at hand. You've been drafting your teams and now the time has come to start working out your start and sit decisions. Some players are obvious starts every week, while other decisions will likely depend on the particular matchup in a given week.
The San Francisco 49ers roster features a host of fantasy football options. Frank Gore and Vernon Davis are likely the first two players you think of when you consider your fantasy football options, but in the new Jim Harbaugh offense some of the other skill position players might find themselves particularly valuable. The west coast offense might very well even develop QB Alex Smith into an interesting bye week fill-in, if not more.
Over the course of the season we'll help you decide which 49ers players are worth starting in a given week with the help of numberFire.com and their weekly projections. Before we get into that however, let's take a look at the 49ers skill posiiton players, kicker and defense and consider their fantasy value.
Alex Smith: The 49ers QB remains a big question mark in part because of his past performance and in part because of his offensive line. Jim Harbaugh has made it clear Alex Smith is his guy this season and fans now find themselves wondering whether the Harbaugh magic that turned Josh Johnson into an NFL-caliber QB and Andrew Luck into a Heisman candidate can work on Smith.
While nobody will be starting Alex Smith early in the season, the 49ers offense could conceivably develop to the point where Smith is worth using as a bye week fill-in or as a temporary injury replacement. He also could be out of the lineup by the time bye weeks roll around. He's likely available on most waiver wires, but some solid early performances could be enough to get people snatching him up.
Frank Gore: The 49ers starting running back missed the final five games of the 2010 season with a hairline fracture of his hip. He appears back to 100% and inked a three-year contract extension with the 49ers. He will be a focal point of the rushing attack and could be featured prominently in the short passing game of the west coast offense. He remains a must-start every week and if he can stay healthy expect a strong bounce-back season.
Kendall Hunter/Anthony Dixon: While Frank Gore is the no-doubt number one guy, the 49ers rushing attack might be sufficiently diversified that a handcuff is necessary to Gore. Throw in Gore's injury history of missing at least a game or two each season prior to last year and it is better to be safe than sorry. The problem is knowing who will play that role. Dixon is currently listed as the number two on the depth chart, but one could argue he was outperformed by Hunter throughout the preseason. If you are concerned about Gore, I'd recommend Hunter, but Dixon could have value as a short yardage/goal line back.
Vernon Davis: The 49ers wildly athletic tight end joins Frank Gore as a must start once again. More importantly, head coach Jim Harbaugh brings an offense that emphasized the tight end at Stanford. While Harbaugh and OC Greg Roman had talented tight ends at Stanford, they had nobody as athletic as #85. Davis remains a must start and is on the verge of firmly entrenching himself as a top five tight end.
Delanie Walker: While Davis will get the headlines, backup tight end Delanie Walker could quietly become a modest sleeper. The 49ers will utilize two tight ends quite frequently in part because both tight ends are athletic enough to also be split out wide. Walker is not going to be on any fantasy rosters for now, but keep an eye on him through the season as he could become an emergency option for injuries or maybe even a bye week.
Braylon Edwards: The 49ers newest wide receiver did not join the team until training camp had begun but he has worked in earnest to develop necessary rapport with QB Alex Smith. While MIchael Crabtree is the guy the team is hoping for big things from long term, Edwards could prove to be the number one receiver throughout the coming season. He has a combination of size and speed that make him tough to cover down the field. More importantly, he figured out a technical issue that was contributing to his many drops and in turn he only had four last season.
Edwards will not be a number one receiving option in fantasy football, he is currently a respectable gamble as a flex receiver and could develop into a solid number two receiver. If you're in a 12 or 14 team league and Edwards is somehow available on your waiver wire, I'd say grab him now before too many other people realize his value.
Michael Crabtree: The enigmatic former number one draft pick has seen plenty of highs and lows in his brief NFL career. After an extended holdout his rookie season he put together an impressive 11-game stretch that showed how skilled he is. However, in 2010 he seemed to regress a bit as he played a full 16-game schedule but saw his yards and receptions per game stats go down. He missed all of 2011 training camp with a fractured foot, but appears to be ready for the regular season opener.
The foot remains a concern, but for the purposes of fantasy football, he seems over it at this point. The question is where to use him on your fantasy team. Early on he will likely be a sit candidate until he proves that 1) he is 100% healthy and 2) he will be a consistent producer. Once healthy he could pick up impressive YAC totals on shorter routes, but until we know for sure he is over the foot problem, he is a guy who should be on your bench for now.
Josh Morgan/Ted Ginn/Kyle Williams: The remaining three receivers will be readily available early in the season on the waiver wire if you feel obligated to add them. Morgan will be starting opposite Braylon Edwards for now, but once Michael Crabtree is healthy, Morgan likely drops to the third receiver. Ginn has been named a co-starter alongside Edwards for now and has reportedly impressed the coaching staff. The question is whether he can consistently hold onto the ball and get over the drops, which has been a significant issue for him throughout his NFL career. Kyle Williams is a guy with upside but entering his second season, it will be hard for him to get a lot of looks behind the likes of Crabtree, Edwards, Davis and Gore, among others.
With a team that already has Frank Gore and Vernon Davis as viable receiving options as well, any production past Edwards and Crabtree will be negligible for now. They are worth keeping an eye on since we don't really know the full extent of distribution in the Jim Harbaugh offense, but not guys that will be on rosters for the moment.
David Akers: The new 49ers kicker is a very solid option at the position and could get a lot of field goal opportunities in the new offense. 49ers fans will be hoping for limited field goals behind more touchdowns, but given past red zone struggles, if the offense can make some moves down the field, Akers may get a host of FG opportunities. There are other kickers that get more love in the rankings, but Akers is a solid enough option.
49ers Defense: Two years ago the 49ers had the top scoring defense in fantasy football thanks to a high number of turnovers and some flukish touchdowns (a blocked FG returned for a TD, for example). The defense gets a scheme infusion under Vic Fangio that could bring a broader mix of blitzes than seen in recent years. That could mean more sacks and more turnovers thanks to the pressure.
The 49ers made numerous changes in personnel with upwards of seven new faces in the starting lineup. There are always question marks with a lot of turnover, but given the scheme, I think the numbers will be there to justify the 49ers defense in your starting lineup. They might give up a decent number of points but I think that will be adequately offset by sacks and turnovers over the course of the season.