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San Francisco 49ers Writers
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After serving as offensive coordinator to an MVP campaign from Matt Ryan and a Super Bowl berth from the Atlanta Falcons in 2016, Kyle Shanahan was a hot commodity on the coaching market. He landed with the 49ers and immediately improved their offense from atrocious in 2016 to mediocre in 2017. His plans for 2018 were derailed when an injury to starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo left him playing an undrafted free agent rookie for most of the year. In 2019, Shanahan finally had his system installed and his preferred personnel in place, and the results were spectacular. The 49ers finished in the top 5 in both points scored and yards gained despite ranking 29th in pass attempts. Then, in 2020, more injuries at quarterback derailed the offense once again.
When it's operating at its peak, San Francisco features one of the league's most dynamic and unpredictable rushing attacks despite liberally rotating running backs. Its passing attack is similarly efficient despite spreading the workload around among several talented targets. In fact, other than All Pro tight end George Kittle, the team's top offensive weapon on any given play was seemingly "whoever is most wide-open", and that player varied wildly on a down-by-down basis as Shanahan used a dizzying array of route combinations and formations to seemingly scheme players open at will.
Lance may not yet be "ready to start" in the true sense of the term. Still, given the 49ers' holding pattern with Garoppolo, the future is likely now for last year's top pick. Even if a QB-needy team can't pry Garoppolo away, his long-term shoulder woes only further the idea that Lance offers the best shot to win now. The team continues to talk up his progress and their sky-high expectations for the dynamic dual threat. Lance showed as a rookie that he's very much a work in progress as a passer. His two starts showcased a mixed bag of determined playmaking and wild misfires. But for fantasy purposes, as the clear-cut starter, Lance will shoot into the low-end QB1 draft ranks. Coach Kyle Shanahan is known for trusting his playmakers to be their dynamic selves, and Lance should have the opportunity to throw and run his way into big numbers. In his two rookie starts, he turned 24 rushes into 120 yards while averaging a robust 14.2 yards per completion. His 20.0 fantasy average would've landed QB11, and there's ample upside beyond that.
After another underwhelming season and postseason, Garoppolo has likely run his course as Shanahan's starter. The 30-year-old lacks the tools to haul an offense on his back, and he still makes too many mistakes to serve as a true game manager. Garoppolo enjoyed his best year as a pro in 2021, finishing top-five in a handful of efficiency metrics, but slogged his way to a QB17 finish. He's widely expected to be moved at some point as he recovers from shoulder surgery; the team seems ready to hand the reins to Lance. If so, he may bring a sense of stability to his new team, but will be hard-pressed to make a fantasy difference. In that case, the 49ers would likely roll with Sudfeld as the No. 2. He's appreciated around the league as a backup, but is also a marginal talent who would damage the value of his receivers if forced to start.
Shanahan loves variety in his backfield, but he'll be hard-pressed to keep Mitchell from something close to a workhorse role. Pegged as a one-trick speedster, the 2021 sixth-rounder took nicely to the NFL, posting 1,100 scrimmage yards and scoring 6 touchdowns over 11 games. Over his final 8 games (including the playoffs), he took on 24 touches per game and averaged 98.0 yards. Mitchell didn't bring much to the table as a receiver, but he at least provided a reliable set of hands, catching 19 of his 20 targets. With Sermon looking ordinary and Raheem Mostert out of town, Mitchell casts quite a shadow over this depth chart. He'll enter the season as the clear-cut lead back, projecting to roughly 20 touches a game. In a Shanahan offense, that sets a sky-high RB1 ceiling that could get him overdrafted in fantasy. But Mitchell will be hard to overlook, even as his ADP climbs into (and maybe beyond) the fourth round.
The 49ers drafted a pair of backs last year, and while Sermon drew most of the draftnik and fantasy love, it was Mitchell who flourished as soon as he was given the chance. For his part, Sermon hardly sniffed the field as a rookie. He drew just 44 touches, and 42 of those came with Mitchell on the inactive list. Sermon was a part-time prospect coming out of Ohio State, and he looks poised for a rotational role in the NFL, at best. It was telling that he failed to jump the likes of Wilson and Hasty on the depth chart, and both will be back for 2022. Wilson is a plodding talent, but Shanahan tends to lean on him when injuries strike. He's posted three 100-yard games in relief over the past two years, and he's found the end zone on 12 of his 225 touches over that span. Hasty has proven to be little more than deep depth, and his roster spot is anything but certain. Rookie Davis-Price is a fairly average runner, but he has a solid first cut and could wind up a crucial piece of Shanahan's ground game.
The team made it a point to retain Juszczyk for 2022, as he's somewhat crucial to Shanahan's attack. But much of that comes from his blocking; he's far more valuable to Shanahan than to the fantasy world. Jusczcyk averaged just 35 touches and 306 total yards over his 5 years in San Francisco, with just 8 touchdowns.
On the heels of a massive breakout season (1,780 scrimmage yards and 14 touchdowns), Samuel demanded a trade in April, threatening to leave a huge playmaking hole in Shanahan's arsenal. Thankfully, much of that venom seems to have faded, and the dynamo looks poised for another game-breaking season. Samuel isn't a conventional No. 1 wideout, spending less time winning downfield and more as a backfield weapon and Swiss Army knife. But he's developed more and more in his routes, and his ability to dominate on all levels of the field would be sorely missed. Across the field, the hope is that Aiyuk takes another step forward after a wildly uneven second year. Aiyuk opened 2021 in Shanahan's doghouse, drawing just 16 targets over his first 6 games. But once he'd convinced his coach he was worth the effort, Aiyuk took off, posting 56 receptions, 865 yards, and 4 touchdowns over his final 14 (playoffs included). Like Samuel, Aiyuk is a big, sturdy playmaker who can win all over the field. His college experience was rooted in the same kind of versatility that Shanahan so values highly in Samuel. As a 2021 rookie, Aiyuk turned 66 touches into 825 yards and 7 touchdowns as the nominal No. 1 wideout.
Jennings has the inside track on the 49ers' marginally-used No. 3 role. He's a big-bodied slot option who stepped up through injuries and scored four of his five touchdowns in the red zone. He may boast some fantasy sleeper appeal if Samuel is dealt, but would remain far more valuable to the 49ers than to fantasy teams. There's barely enough air volume here to keep two pass-catchers valuable, let alone a third. Third-rounder Gray looks like a luxury pick, boasting dazzling workout numbers but a modest college track record. Any movement up the depth chart from Gray would be a plus, but even then, his odds of real 2022 involvement are slim. Marcus Johnson turned a few heads last year with a 100-yard game for the Titans, and he likely has the upper hand in the battle for No. 4. McCloud is likely only on board as a punt returner, while KeeSean Johnson is a reclamation project after failing to make a dent in Arizona. He carried a solid draft profile as a possession guy, but "boasts" just 36 catches for 360 yards and a single touchdown over two years in the league.
Kittle was slowed throughout 2021 by a nagging calf injury that cost him three games and chunks of others. But on the field, he showed why he still has to be considered a premier fantasy option. Over 17 games including the playoffs, Kittle caught 78 balls for 1,018 yards and 7 touchdowns. Few in recent memory could boast the blend of opportunity (7.7 targets per game) and dynamism (13.6 yards per catch) he's shown over the past 4 years. There may always be concern over Kittle's health and availability - he's missed 15 of his last 49 regular-season games. But the tight end spot in fantasy lineups is typically a crapshoot, so Kittle's explosive playmaking is worth locking down within the first five rounds in any format. Dwelley has established himself as a trusted backup and occasional extra blocker, but he caught just four balls last year. Journeyman Kroft was likely brought in to serve as insurance for Kittle's pass-game role. Woerner has a similar goal, while Matthews may try yet again to stick on this roster at the new position.
- LT Trent Williams
- LG Colton McKivitz
- C Jake Brendel
- RG Daniel Brunskill
- RT Mike McGlinchey
- Jaylon Moore, Justin Skule
This borderline top-10 group is led by left tackle Trent Williams, who made his ninth Pro Bowl last year. Williams is probably the best tackle in the game at the moment. Center Alex Mack retired in the offseason. Jake Brendel is the next man up at the position, but the 49ers could also bring in a veteran, and projected starting right guard Daniel Brunskill could also play center. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey is an effective run blocker and underrated in general. Left guard has a new starter, as Colton McKivitz will take over for Laken Tomlinson.
Gould has bounced back from a poor 2019 to level off and secure his job going forward, but he hasn't been getting nearly enough field goal attempts to be relevant in fantasy leagues. Gould would have ranked in the middle of the pack in scoring if he hadn't missed four games with an injury. He has never had more than four attempts from 50+ yards during his tenure with the 49ers, so he's likely to remain a mere bye/injury fill-in option in fantasy leagues.
- Ray-Ray McCloud III, Jamycal Hasty
The 49ers typically have several talented return options, and 2022 is shaping up to be no different after the team signed specialist Ray-Ray McCloud III from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Jamycal Hasty gives another option if McCloud doesn't make the roster.
The 49ers typically have several talented return options, and 2022 is shaping up to be no different after the team signed specialist Ray-Ray McCloud III from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Brandon Aiyuk handled punt returns last year and gives another option if McCloud doesn't make the roster.
The 49ers defense had a solid performance last year. They rebounded from their injury-filled 2020 season and the defensive line stood out with a top 10 sack and QB pressure season. So far this offseason they have addressed the cornerback position with free-agent signing Charvarious Ward. They have increased their pass rush potential by sliding Samson Ebukam to defensive end behind Dee Ford and they return a solid linebacker core. This unit will likely look to address depth pieces in the secondary as well as the linebacker position through the draft or late free agency pieces. This defense has the chance to be a top 5 squad by the end of the season.
The 49ers defense was among the league's best in points and yards allowed, and finished second in sacks, but didn't warm up until the second half of the season, when they lumped on the Jaguars, Falcons, and Texans, but also posted their best fantasy performance of the year against the Rams. The defense returns basically intact from last year and added Charvarius Ward in free agency, who should instantly become their best corner. San Francisco should be one of your #1 targets late in your draft because they open with the Bears and Seahawks, and you might hold them for matchups against Russell Wilson and the Rams offense in Weeks 3-4 because they get the Panthers and Falcons after that.
- Samson Ebukam, Kemoko Turay, Hassan Ridgeway, Maurice Hurst, Kevin Givens, Chris Slayton, Kerry Hyde, Jordan Willis
The defensive line will continue to be a strong suit for the 49ers coming into the 2022 season. There is some slight shuffling with Dee Ford slated to take a starting role at defensive end, but the rest of the unit returns from last season. They currently sit with an influx of backup defensive linemen and that will be used to rotate heavily and efficiently. Nick Bosa is back to playing at a Pro Bowl level and Dee Ford showed why they gave him a big contract. This starting group has the potential to be one of the best in the NFL and will regularly be causing havoc in the backfield.
The backup list for the 49ers is not as well known as it was last season. Dee Ford worked from this list to a starting role this season and there will be several names vying for snaps. The most interesting name is Samson Ebukam. He is moving from the weak side linebacker position to a pass-rushing defensive end role. He will push Dee Ford for playing time and should see ample opportunity to rush the quarterback on 3rd down. The move leaves the 49ers weak at the linebacker position to start the year, but that is the same role Ford played with Kansas City before coming over in 2019. The 49ers could find snaps for both players if they rotate between rushing end and weak side linebacker.
The starting linebacker group will once again be led by Fred Werner. Dre Greenlaw showed flashes of elite-level play when he stayed healthy, and Azeez Al-Shaair was promoted from behind Werner to a starting role alongside him. This trio should account for a major portion of all tackles for the 49ers this season. Werner is always a candidate for over 100 tackles when healthy, and Greenlaw is likely just a tier below that. Samson Ebukam is moving to a defensive end role and that is going to limit depth at linebacker. This starting group is locked in for the beginning of the season and would take a major injury to change that.
The 49ers have little to no depth at the linebacker position this season. Nathan Gerry filled in admirably but was lost to free agency. With Ebukam slated to move to the line in a pass-rushing role, the best backup option is Oren Burks at the moment. This is the area of greatest need for the 49ers defense heading into the season. Look for another piece to be added via free agency or the draft before the start of the season.
The 49ers secondary struggled at times last season and they went out and addressed that by adding Charvarius Ward. Ward is coming off a solid season with the Kansas City Chiefs and has pushed the incumbent starter in Emmanuel Moseley to the bench. Ambry Thomas was picked on early and often last season and could see his role taken by Moseley or from the draft if he struggles again early. Jimmie Ward is still an elite safety and will lead this secondary again this season. Look for a better overall performance from this group in 2022.
The backups in the secondary read much better than a season ago coming into 2022. Moseley was a starter last season and Hufanga played great down the stretch. The addition of Ward to the starting group strengthens the backups but this is still an area that needs to be addressed coming into the season. Both the backup linebackers and secondary are trouble spots for this defense as there are little in-house options if a starter gets injured.