This fantasy preview is part of a preseason series by FantasyLabs Editor-in-Chief Matthew Freedman with contributions from Ian Hartitz, Joe Holka, and Kelly McCann. Other pieces in the series are available on our Fantasy Football Preview Dashboard.
Long before Tom Brady and the Patriots, the NFL had Joe Montana and the 49ers. For a decade and a half, the franchise was the toast of the NFL, winning five Super Bowls between 1981 and 1994. The team failed to make the playoffs in nine of 11 seasons from 2000 to 2010 before Jim Harbaugh led the team to three straight NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl, which they lost to the Ravens. Now, though, the 49ers are entering the fourth season with their fourth coach, and they haven’t made the playoffs in three years. Since Harbaugh, the team has gone 7-25. For first-time head coach Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers, the goal in 2017 should be modest: Try not to lose double-digit games.
Shanahan has zero HC experience, but he does have 13 years as an NFL assistant. He has worked under some bright offensive minds, including three Super Bowl-winning HCs in John Gruden, Gary Kubiak, and his father, Mike Shanahan. Given his experience and success with various organizations, Shanahan has earned his shot to lead a team.
A wide receiver in college at the University of Texas, Shanahan entered the coaching ranks right after graduating, serving as a graduate assistant at UCLA for one year (2003) before landing a gig on Gruden’s Tampa Bay staff as a quality control coach (2004-05). In 2006, Shanahan moved to Houston, where he was the league’s youngest position coach (wide receivers) under Kubiak before being promoted to quarterbacks coach (2007) and then OC (2008-09). After four seasons (2010-13) as the Redskins OC under his father, Shanahan had a one-year stint (2014) as the OC in Cleveland before spending the last two seasons guiding Atlanta’s high-octane offense.
Over the last decade it’s become increasingly popular for rookie HCs who were previously coordinators to oversee their side of the ball and call plays instead of delegating those tasks to someone else. Shanahan is following suit and has chosen not to have an OC. He’ll be the play caller for the 49ers this season.
As a play-caller, Shanahan has gone to extremes over the last nine years. With Houston and in his first two years with Washington, he coordinated offenses that on average were fifth in passing attempts. Additionally, after a painfully slow first season in Houston (29th in neutral pace), Shanahan’s offense was 12th, 13th, and 13th in neutral pace the three following years (Football Outsiders). In 2012, though, the Redskins drafted quarterback Robert Griffin III and running back Alfred Morris and employed a ball-control run-heavy offense that was 30th in pass attempts and 28th in neutral pace. In 2013 everything spun out of control in Washington and Shanahan increased the passing volume as the team played from behind, but in 2014 — with Brian Hoyer at quarterback — Shanahan used an uptempo run-heavy offense that was third in pace and sixth in rushing attempts.
In his first year in Atlanta, Shanahan skewed toward the pass — the team was eighth in pass attempts — but overall the Falcons were balanced: 14th in run/pass ratio and 17th in neutral pace. Last year, though, the Falcons played quickly (fourth in pace) and efficiently, finishing second in yards and first in points even though they were 26th in offensive plays. Relying on the running back duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, the Falcons played with a lead for much of the season and thus were just 26th in pass attempts. Even so, they were third in passing yardage.
What does all of this mean for the 49ers? As he has throughout his career, Shanahan is likely to have an offense that caters to his players. Hoyer knows the system and is capable of running the offense at a fast pace — and, for better or worse, the players are used to playing quickly thanks to former HC Chip Kelly. With a workhorse back and two rookie backups ready to run the ball, Shanahan is unlikely to distribute a plethora of targets to the unproven receivers behind Pierre Garcon. The 49ers will likely run the ball as much as possible in 2017.
While the offensive line is largely the same, almost everything else about this offense is different:
- QB: Colin Kaepernick/Blaine Gabbert –> Brian Hoyer
- RB: Carlos Hyde/Shaun Draughn –> Hyde/Matt Breida/Joe Williams
- WR: Torrey Smith –> Pierre Garcon
- WR: Quinton Patton –> Marquise Goodwin/Aldrick Robinson
- WR: Jeremy Kerley
- TE: Vance McDonald/Garrett Celek –> George Kittle
- LT: Joe Staley
- LG: Zane Beadles
- C: Daniel Kilgore
- RG: Josh Garnett/Andrew Tiller –> Garnett/Brandon Fusco
- RT: Trent Brown
A journeyman, Hoyer doesn’t have the fantasy upside of Kaepernick, but his familiarity with Shanahan’s offense should enable him to be a competent game manager. Rookies Breida and Williams provide upside behind Hyde. Garcon was a target hog in Shanahan’s Washington offense and is an upgrade over the departed Smith. Goodwin and Robinson are likely to serve as deep threats while Kerley returns to man the slot. McDonald was recently traded to the Steelers, clearing the way for the rookie Kittle to start in Week 1.
While continuity is a virtue, this line will need more than another year together to be markedly better in 2017. Staley is a five-time Pro Bowler, but he’s 33 years old and battling tendinitis in his knee. Gernett was a first-round pick just last year, but he finished dead last in Pro Football Focus’ pass-blocking rating. In March the 49ers traded a sixth-round pick to the Ravens for center Jeremy Zuttah in the hope that he would start, but he was so uninspiring in training camp that they released him in early August. Overall this unit was dead last with 3.46 adjusted line yards per carry last year and 24th with a 10.6 percent adjusted sack rate. It’s possible that the change to Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme could improve the line’s play — and Hyde did accumulate 1,151 yards and nine touchdowns from scrimmage in 13 games last year despite the offensive line — but the 49ers enters the season with PFF’s sixth-worst unit.
Former Jaguars linebackers coach Robert Saleh is stepping in (with no play-calling experience) to serve as the 49ers DC. Saleh worked with Shanahan in Houston and won a Super Bowl as a quality control assistant with the Seahawks in 2013. Saleh is overhauling the entire defense (which last year was 32nd in yards and points allowed) and transitioning the team from a 3-4 to a Seattle-style 4-3 hybrid system:
- DE: Quinton Dial/Arik Armstead –> Armstead/Elvis Dumervil
- NT: Glenn Dorsey –> Earl Mitchell/Dial
- DE: DeForest Buckner –> DT: DeForest Buckner
- OLB: Ahmad Brooks/Tank Carradine –> DE: Solomon Thomas/Carradine
- MLB: Gerald Hodges –> OLB: Reuben Foster
- MLB: Navorro Bowman/Nick Bellore –> Bowman/Ray-Ray Armstrong
- OLB: Eli Harold
- CB: Tramaine Brock –> Dontae Johnson
- CB: Rashard Robinson/Keith Reaser –> Robinson
- SCB: Jimmie Ward –> K’Waun Williams
- SS: Antoine Bethea –> Eric Reid
- FS: Eric Reid –> Jimmie Ward
Rookies like Thomas and Foster — both first-round picks — will need to contribute heavily if this front seven hopes to improve. Getting a pass rush from the ageless Dumervil and solid linebacking play from Harold and Bowman will also be key. Overall, the front seven enters 2017 as PFF’s No. 32 unit. In the secondary, Ward will shift from slot corner to free safety and Reid will shift to strong safety. Reid earned an 80.6 grade from PFF as a rookie in 2013 but has seen his grade steadily decrease each season all the way to a brutal 50.5 last year (71st out of 90). Saleh reportedly envisions Reid as the Kam Chancellor of this defense and according to PFF he has looked the part this preseason, ranking ninth among all safeties in preseason grades. The 49ers currently have PFF’s No. 25 secondary. While this unit could struggle in the scheme transition, it’s probable that the defense won’t play any worse than it did last year.
Hoyer can’t be worse than Kaepernick and Gabbert, right?
Brian Hoyer, QB
Hoyer has never started 16 games in an NFL season, but he did start 13 for the 2014 Browns under Shanahan. That year, Hoyer set career highs for pass attempts (438) and passing yards (3,326), totaling 12 touchdowns. In limited action, Hoyer has shown a tendency to lock onto his No. 1 receiver: He was the quarterback for most of DeAndre Hopkins’ 111-catch season and, last year he fed Cameron Meredith 8.8 targets per game. This year, it’s likely he will target Garcon heavily, so if you want to stack Hoyer with his No. 1 receiver in daily fantasy contests, do it with our Lineup Builder.
In limited reps over the past two seasons, Hoyer has averaged just 16.77 DraftKings points per game (PPG), although he has provided some value with his +1.99 Plus/Minus, 62.5 percent Consistency Rating, and 4.3 percent ownership rate in large-field guaranteed prize pools (per our Trends tool). This year FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across GPPs of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard, which is reason enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs. Be sure to monitor our Vegas Dashboard to see how the market views Hoyer and the 49ers each week.
Carlos Hyde, RB
Here’s the Hyde blurb from Freedman’s summer piece on the top 100 NFL players:
The big-bodied grinder has a respectable career average of 4.3 yards per carry. In his two years sans Frank Gore, Hyde has 16.6 carries for 72.9 yards per game. For his career he has a Le’Veon Bell-esque 78.1 percent catch rate, and last year he turned 33 targets into 163 yards and three touchdowns. He could be Shanahan’s new workhorse.
Even though Hyde is a big-bodied back (230 lbs.) the 49ers presented him with just six carries inside the five-yard line last season; in comparison, both LeGarrette Blount and David Johnson had more than 20. In fact, with 33.3 percent of the team’s goal-line rushing attempts, Hyde had one of the lowest carry shares among lead backs. Opportunity is everything for running backs, and unless the 49ers increase Hyde’s goal-line share this season his upside will be severely limited.
Hyde missed three games last season due to a shoulder strain, but in 13 games he played on 68.7 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, the 12th-highest mark among backs. Hyde lacked big-play explosiveness, ranking 25th at the position in breakaway run rate (5.1 percent), but his 1.7 yards after contact per touch ranked sixth. Against base fronts he was efficient, ranking fifth with 5.6 yards per carry, but he struggled against stacked fronts, dropping to 48th with 1.5 yards per carry (PlayerProfiler). Last year he was good, finishing 11th among all running backs with 15.47 DraftKings PPG — but he wasn’t great.
That said, he’s the lead back for a coach who’s had success running the ball and is motivated to keep the ball out of the quarterback’s hands. Hyde has top-12 upside at his average draft position (ADP) of 46.2 in DRAFT best ball leagues.
Matt Breida, RB
Undrafted out of Georgia Southern, Breida was one of the most productive backs in college football in 2014 and 2015 when he was a two-time all-Sun Belt player. He accumulated 3,094 rushing yards in those two seasons with single-season rushing averages of 8.7 and 7.9. When HC Willie Fritz left Georgia Southern in 2016, the offense faltered and Breida rushed for only 646 yards as a senior, tanking his draft stock. At his pro day, however, Breida revealed himself to be a legitimate NFL prospect with his speed (4.39-second 40) and agility (6.85-second 40). He’s small (5’9″ and 195 lbs.), but Shanahan rode the comparable Steve Slaton (5’9″ and 197 lbs.) to a top-12 position finish as a rookie in 2008. At a minimum, Breida looks like a potential change-of-pace option behind Hyde with upside if the team isn’t pleased with the veteran’s early performance.
Joe Williams, RB
Shortly after the NFL draft, Williams looked like one of several fourth-round rookies who could crush 2017. Shanahan reportedly petitioned Lynch to draft him in the fourth round. By the numbers, Williams looks a lot like Tevin Coleman, with his size (5’11” and 210 lbs.) and speed (4.41-second 40), and Williams, curious past aside, was productive in college, averaging 150.5 yards and 1.08 touchdowns rushing per game in his 12 workhorse games at Utah. Breida overtook him in the competition for the backup job, but he has the potential to emerge as a Zero RB producer in the second half of the season.
Pierre Garcon, WR
Here’s another blurb from Freedman’s piece on the top 100 players:
Wonderfully mispriced at his 89.2 ADP, Garcon is familiar with Shanahan’s offense, having led the league with 113 receptions on 181 targets in 2013, Shanny’s last year in Washington. Garcon will be 31 years old when the season starts, but even so he has significant upside: In Shanny’s first year with Washington in 2010, he coordinated an offense that funneled 145 targets to a 31-year-old Santana Moss, who produced a 93-1,115-6 stat line. It’s a bonus that Hoyer knows Shanahan’s offense from their 2014 season together in Cleveland.
Last season, Garcon garnered 114 targets in an offense with two other wide receivers (DeSean Jackson and Jamison Crowder) who combined for 199 targets between them. Now the clear No. 1 receiver in San Francisco, Garcon has the opportunity to capitalize on the 218 targets that are missing from last year’s offense. Per Evan Silva, Garcon has been a target monster in Shanahan’s Washington offense, piling up 9.85 targets per game compared to just 5.85 targets in his non-Shanahan career. Playing without Jackson in his way has also helped: Garcon has averaged an additional 2.85 PPG without Jackson.
In 2016 he caught 79 passes for 1,041 yards, and he finished the year with an 81.0 percent Consistency Rating on DraftKings, tied for the lead league among full-time starters.
Marquise Goodwin, WR
A former third-round pick out of Texas, Goodwin has elite speed (4.27 second-40) and is the favorite to play the Taylor Gabriel role in Shanahan’s offense. In 15 games with Buffalo last season, Goodwin played on 64.8 percent of the snaps but got just a 17.0 percent target share. A boom-or-bust option, Goodwin had two games with at least 19.3 DraftKings points in 2016 — and then the rest of his games were no higher than 9.3. He’s a big-play threat — his 14.2-yard target distance was 16th in the NFL last year — but he’s likely to have limited opportunities.
Jeremy Kerley, WR
Against all odds, Kerley led San Francisco in targets (115), catches (64), and receiving yards (667) last season. That says more about the 2016 offense than about him. Kerley is small (5’9″ and 188 lbs.) and slow (4.62-second 40), but he played on 83.4 percent of the offensive snaps while commanding the league’s 20th-highest target share (23.6 percent). Shanahan’s unlikely to utilize the slot receiver the way that Kelly did, but Kerley has a good chance to finish the season with the second-most targets on the team. He’s a late-round flyer with a respectable floor but little upside.
Aldrick Robinson, WR
An in-house favorite of Freedman and Adam Levitan, Robinson has good speed (4.43-second 40) and experience with the Shanahan offense in both Washington and Atlanta. Lord Aldrick hasn’t gotten many opportunities since entering the league as a sixth-round pick in 2012, but he was efficient with his targets last year, averaging 2.01 fantasy points per target — which is exactly what Julio Jones averaged. Fifth last year with 29.7 yards per reception out of the slot, it’s possible that Robinson will push Goodwin and Kerley for snaps as a situational player.
George Kittle, TE
With McDonald gone, the fifth-round rookie looks like the Week 1 starter. With good size (6’4″ and 247 lbs.) and athleticism (4.52-second 40), Kittle has the ability to play both inline and in the slot. What especially distinguishes him is his blocking ability. While most rookie tight ends struggle with blocking, Kittle had PFF’s second-highest run-blocking grade (79.6) last year among the draft-eligible tight ends. With 10 touchdowns in 19 games over the last two years, Kittle also has the potential to contribute in the red zone. With the opportunity to play significant snaps right away, Kittle is a quality stash in dynasty leagues.
The 49ers currently have a modest 2017 win total of 4.5 games with a -165 over and +135 under. They’re also +1,000 to make the playoffs and -2,500 not to. Although the 49ers had a 4.2-win Pythagorean Expectation last year and should be better this year with new coaches and new systems, it’s possible that they could struggle with a rookie HC, rookie DC, and new schemes to learn on both sides of the ball. When you add in that the 49ers face the league’s toughest schedule of opposing run defenses (per Warren Sharp, Rotoworld) and that the coaching staff and front office might be more focused this year on finding their players than winning games, it’s not hard to take the under. This team isn’t even thinking about the playoffs.
The 49ers are currently +30,000 to win the Super Bowl, +10,000 to win the NFC, and +1,800 to win the NFC West. Those aren’t just three Black Swans. Those are dragons.
In researching for this piece I consulted Evan Silva’s excellent 49ers Fantasy Preview at Rotoworld and relied on data from Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, PlayerProfiler, Team Rankings, The Power Rank, NFL.com, and the apps at RotoViz as well as the FantasyLabs Tools and Models.
Ian Hartitz contributed research to this article.