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2012 Team Report: San Francisco 49ers

Quarterbacks

Starter: Alex Smith
Backup(s): Colin Kaepernick, Scott Tolzien

Starting QB: Don't look now, but Alex Smith is no longer the butt of fantasy jokes. Smith wasn't a fantasy starter in 2012, but his 17 touchdowns to five interceptions was a huge step in the right direction. Although the 49ers wooed Peyton Manning in the offseason, they welcomed Smith back and fortified his supporting cast with numerous big-play weapons capable of elevating the young veteran's production. Look for the 49ers to incorporate more vertical elements into the passing game and frequently spread the field for Smith to operate. The 49ers starting quarterback isn't likely to become a top-12 fantasy starter in 2012, but he'll be closer than he's ever been during his six-year career � and he was No. 17 at the position last year.

Backup QB: Colin Kaepernick has a lot of athletic similarities to Vince Young. He had release and footwork issues in college, and the addition of Johnson to the roster might indicate the 49ers weren't confident in Kaepernick's progress to make him the backup. Those worries are thing of memory now that Kaepernick has earned the starting job and demonstrating the the big-play ability that could make him a surprise if he is called into duty. Tolzien is a game manager with good anticipation that makes up for some of his mediocre arm.

Running Backs

Starter: Frank Gore
Backup(s): Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James [R], Brandon Jacobs, Anthony Dixon
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: There's a perception that Gore is a better fantasy option than Steven Jackson, and from the standpoint of end-of-the-year ranking he generally has been. However, Gore has missed more games in the past five years than Jackson, which makes him less reliable. The 49ers offensive centerpiece did play all 16 games in 2011 and finished the year with a respectable 1,211 yards, eight touchdowns, and a No. 12 fantasy ranking among his peers at his position. There's talk that Gore will lose touches in 2012 because of the addition of Brandon Jacobs, rookie LaMichael James, and last year's selection of Kendall Hunter. However, Jacobs could easily be an upgrade to Anthony Dixon, who has failed to perform to expectation, and when it comes to running between the tackles neither Hunter nor James are on the same plane as Gore. Unless the 49ers offense becomes New Orleans-west in the blink of an eye, Gore should be good for 260-300 touches in 2012 and a quality fantasy RB2.

Backup RBs: Brandon Jacobs is capable of spelling Gore with good production, but he lacks Gore's vision. He also has a knee injury that could derail his opportunities for extensive time early int he year. Gore appeared to lose a step of down-field speed last year, and this might have prompted the 49ers to add LaMichael James. The rookie is a good receiver with excellent open field skill. If he can demonstrate the vision and toughness between the tackles on a situational level, he could earn time as a rookie. However, he's also dealing with a foot injury suffered during the preseason and he hasn't done enough to beat Kendall Hunter. The second-year back didn't blow the doors off his rookie year, but a 4.2-yard-per-carry average and a 12.2-yard-per-catch average is solid production with room to grow into an even better player. Hunter has been impressive in camp and has solidified his role as the primary back up to Gore. However if somewhere down the line Hunter and James impress, this offense could incorporate a lot more spread concepts with no-huddle tempo faster than we may think. Dixon has talent, but he has been indecisive at the point of attack between the tackles. His worth ethic was always a question mark, too. However, camp reports say he has responded well to a potential transition to fullback.

Fullback: Bruce Miller is a converted defensive end who touches the ball zero to two times per game. Yep - he's a blocking fullback.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Randy Moss
Backups: A.J. Jenkins [R], Ted Ginn, Kyle Williams

Starting WRs: If the 49ers spread the field with greater effectiveness than previous seasons, Michael Crabtree could benefit in a role similar to that of Marques Colston: a physical slot receiver moved around the offense to gain mismatches. Mario Manningham is an upgrade on paper. He has the athleticism and talent to become a capable big-play receiver, but he lacked the consistency in New York. If he plays to his talent, he could be a top-15 fantasy receiver. If the Patriots-Vikings version of Randy Moss comes to San Francisco, the 49ers offense could vault to the upper echelon of units in the league. Lots of ifs, and at this point it looks like Manningham and Moss will rotate at the No.2 spot with Moss on a snap count of 20-25 plays per game. This is likely due to age and a year away from the game. If Moss shows he can stay healthy, there's no reason to think that the 49ers wouldn't up that snap count as the season progresses. The ground game could be dominant, and Alex Smith will have plum mismatches to work with.

Backup WRs: Jenkins has good hands and should develop into starter within two to three years. Ted Ginn is a great return specialist, but a below average NFL receiver with inconsistent hands and route skills. Kyle Williams is a nifty slot receiver with some skill after the catch.

Tight Ends

Starters: Vernon Davis
Backups: Delanie Walker, Nate Byham

Vernon Davis is an absolute stud and has been the best receiver in an offense so bereft of weapons that can stretch the field that his own fantasy production has been depressed. If Manningham, Moss, and/or Jenkins can stretch the field productively, Davis could approach even higher fantasy totals than he has already achieved. He's a safe fantasy starter with huge upside in the right situation. Delanie Walker is one of the better reserve move-tight ends in the league. If called into action, he can serve fantasy owners well as at least a productive, bye-week option. He has the trust of his quarterback, down field speed, and skill after the catch. Nate Byham is more of an extra offensive lineman with good short-range hands.

Place Kicker

David Akers : In his first season with the 49ers, David Akers set the NFL single season scoring record, hitting 44 of 52 (84.6%) field goals along with 34 PATs. Seven successful kicks came from 50+ yards. His holder will again be punter Andy Lee. The third specialist spot will be incumbent long snapper Brian Jennings, who withstood a brief challenge from free agent acquisition Ryan Pontbriand who was released in June. After four years at or near the bottom of the rankings in kicker scoring opportunities, the 49ers shot up to number one last year - with one of the highest attempted totals in history.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Ted Ginn, LaMichael James [R], Rock Cartwright

With the re-signing of return ace WR Ted Ginn, the biggest questions about the 49ers return game are likely to be who will be second on the depth chart. Last season's backup WR Kyle Williams had two costly fumbles on punts in the NFC Championship game. Rookie RB LaMichael James is quick and elusive and draws comparisons to Darren Sproles for more than just similar stature.

Punt Returners: Ted Ginn, LaMichael James [R], Perrish Cox

James is already returning punts in practice, and with head coach Jim Harbaugh having seen first-hand at Stanford what the former Oregon standout can do, he may be a good bet to land the backup positions.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, C Jonathan Goodwin, RG Alex Boone, RT Anthony Davis
Key Backups: G Leonard Davis, T Derek Hall, G Joe Looney [R],

UPDATE: San Francisco 49ers sign free agent guard Leonard Davis. Prior to this signing, no one on the 49ers had any game experience at right guard. The candidates to win the position, Alex Boone, Daniel Kilgore and Joe Looney (rookie) should be concerned about Davis' arrival. Although Davis has had recent struggles with a foot injury, he has three pro bowl appearances on his resume and should make a serious push for the starting right guard position. Davis recently passed his conditioning test, which normally would be a challenge for this player. Davis appears to be ready to compete and win the job outright. If not, the signing creates a possible mentor relationship and will allow Boone to use Davis' experience to elevate his game. Possible upgrade for the 49ers' offensive line, stay tuned. PRESEASON OUTLOOK: Left tackle Joe Staley enjoyed quite a campaign in 2011. He made the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro team as well as catching a pass in an October contest against Cleveland. Staley is an extremely athletic player, and he excels in both run blocking and pass protection. He is quietly one of the league's best tackles. Left guard Mike Iupati is one of five players league wide that merit being elevating to Pro Bowl grade despite not yet receiving that honor. Iupati is an absolute mauler in the run game and is improving as a pass protector. Center Jonathan Goodwin is a two-time Pro Bowl selection and does an extremely solid job in communication and keeping everyone on the same page. Sixth-round pick Jason Slowey will backup Goodwin. Unfortunately the right side is not quite as outstanding as the left side. Right guard is a true competition, with last year's swing tackle Alex Boone battling Daniel Kilgore and fifth-round draft selection Joe Looney out of Wake Forest for the starting job. If Boone wins the right guard job, a less experienced player such as Derek Hall or Mike Person might be next in line for the swing tackle job. Right tackle Anthony Davis has not yet lived up to his first-round billing, and there are rumors that he also could be in line for a move to the right guard spot (with Boone taking over at right tackle). Assuming that doesn't occur, the line returns the same starters at four out of five spots, and that is great for cohesion. Even with the right side uncertainties, the strength of the left tackle, left guard, and center put the 49ers firmly in the top tier of the league's offensive lines.

Team Defense

With the group of players they have at the core of this defense, the team didn't have to chase free agents or draft picks�they just added a little here and there in the draft. Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman are tremendous on the inside at linebacker while Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks destroy things from the outside spot. Smith, heading into his second season, showed tremendous talent last year and is poised to have as big an impact in 2012. If there is any question, the secondary would be the place for it. Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are good players, but not great ones and safety Dashon Goldson has yet to sign his tender and has no plans to anytime soon. This is a very good defense though, and despite the minor uncertainty regarding the secondary, the team is in a great position.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Justin Smith, DE Ray McDonald, NT Isaac Sopoaga
Backups: DE/DT Ricky-Jean Francois, DE DeMarcus Dobbs, DE/DT Ian Williams, DE Will Tukuafu

Starting DL: Justin Smith and Ray McDonald were veteran workhorses for San Francisco in 2011. Both defensive ends played nearly every down in both base and passing subpackages. Smith's numbers weren't eye-popping (45 solo tackles and 6.5 sacks), but he was relentless in pressuring the pocket and very good defending the run. McDonald was quietly one of the better 3-4 defensive ends in the league, with a career-high 5.5 sacks of his own. The Niners made no major additions to the defensive line this offseason and will again rely heavily on Smith and McDonald for strong two-way line play. Isaac Sopoaga returns as the starter at nose tackle in the base defense. He was very good as a two-gapping run stuffer last season.

Backup DL: San Francisco's reserve defensive line may have played fewer snaps than any other team in the league last season. With Justin Smith and Ray McDonald anchoring all packages, Ricky Jean-Francois was the primary backup at all three defensive line positions last year, but saw most of his time spelling Sopoaga at defensive tackle. He played well last year and should be the first option should any of the starters be lost to injury. DeMarcus Dobbs, Ian Williams and Will Tukuafu played only a handful of snaps each in 2011, but the Niners must like what they've seen after not drafting a lineman this year.

Linebackers

Starters: ROLB Aldon Smith, RILB Patrick Willis, LILB NaVorro Bowman, LOLB Ahmad Brooks
Backups: ILB Larry Grant, OLB Parys Haralson, OLB Darius Fleming, OLB Cam Johnson, ILB Tavares Gooden

Starting LBs: Justin Smith may be the motor of the San Francisco front seven, but Patrick Willis is its anchor. A five time All-Pro, Willis is arguably the best all-around inside linebacker in the league. He'll again be a threat for 100 solo tackles while making a handful of big plays in pass rush and coverage. After a promising close to 2010, NaVorro Bowman broke out last season. Bowman made a huge impact between the tackles as a run defender and more than held his own in coverage. His 110 solo tackles will be hard to duplicate this year, but expect another fine season from the third year linebacker. Aldon Smith was used primarily as a subpackage defender last year and racked up 14 sacks, but he was more than a situational pass rusher. Smith flashed strong run support skill and the ability to drop into coverage in zone blitz situations. He'll be ready for a full time role this year. Ahmad Brooks bounced from position to position in Cincinnati, but has found a home as an edge-setting/pass-rushing strong side outside linebacker in the San Francisco 3-4.

Backup LBs: Larry Grant proved a more than capable reserve while filling in for Patrick Willis, who missed time with a hamstring injury during the second half of 2011. Grant's play was certainly buoyed by the strong talent around him, but his play was more physical and instinctive than it had been in St. Louis. He'll again be the primary backup at both ILB spots. Parys Haralson started and played in the base defense ahead of Aldon Smith last year, but will have to compete for a reserve role with late round rookie picks Darius Fleming and Cam Johnson this year. Johnson fell to the seventh round due to a lack of elite measurable, but is a smart, all-around defender who will challenge for a spot on the final 53. Tavares Gooden is unlikely to see snaps outside of special teams.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Carlos Rogers, FS DaShon Goldson, SS Donte Whitner, CB Tarell Brown
Backups: CB Chris Culliver, CB Perrish Cox, CB Tramaine Brock, S Trenton Robinson, S C.J. Spillman

Starting DBs: The Niners re-signed Carlos Rogers in March and he'll again anchor the cornerback unit. Rogers had a career best six interceptions last year, his first in San Francisco, and the team will be hoping they've signed the ball-hawking corner they had last year rather than the inconsistent cover player Rogers was for six years in Washington. Tarell Brown likely has an edge on Chris Culliver for the other corner job, but Culliver showed lots of promise as a rookie in 2011. Both corners have size and aren't afraid to play the run. Donte Whitner returns as the starting strong safety. He'll be inconsistent in coverage at times, but is among the better in-the-box run support safeties in the league. DaShon Goldson can be maddening at times, but the Niners love his nose for the ball behind their stout front seven enough to put the franchise tag on him this spring.

Backup DBs: Perrish Cox was impressive at times as a rookie with Denver in 2010, but off-the-field issues cost him a spot in the league last year. The Niners signed him to a two year contract and he'll compete with Chris Culliver for subpackage snaps and add still more depth to an already strong group. The depth at safety isn't as strong. Reggie Smith and Madieu Williams weren't elite players, but their veteran presence as reserves could be missed. C.J. Spillman played few snaps last year and sixth round pick Trenton Robinson is versatile but will need seasoning.

Last modified: 2012-09-02 20:30:52

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