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2017 Team Report: San Francisco 49ers

Offensive Philosophy

New head coach Kyle Shanahan comes from the Mike Shanahan / Gary Kubiak line of offensive thought in terms of building the pass around the run, especially in the red zone, but questions remain as to whether his personnel will allow him to do so in 2017, (and more importantly, just how much time his team will be spending in the red zone in the first place).


Starter: Brian Hoyer
Backup(s): Matt Barkley, C.J. Beathard (R)

Starting QB: The prototypical "bridge" quarterback, Hoyer landed in San Francisco on a dirt-cheap starter's contract and will enter the year as the unquestioned starter. It's widely assumed that Hoyer is merely holding the reins for 2017's eventual QB, and that switch may even come this year. The team drafted C.J. Beathard in Round 3, and while he's not a particularly enticing prospect, there's a strong chance the team opens the year 1-7 and takes a look at the future. At this point, however, Hoyer looks like the only real candidate to start 14+ games. He carries history with new coach Kyle Shanahan, and he looked plenty serviceable in 2016, generating 4 straight games of 300+ yards with the Bears before going down to injury. The 2017 49ers don't look any stronger than those Bears, so we could again see enough volume from Hoyer to again produce QB2+ streaming value. But that's his sheer upside - a handful of unexpectedly strong weeks - and his downside is through the floorboards. This remains a talent-starved offense, and one that will almost certainly skew run-heavy. Even as the starter, Hoyer is not worthy of a fantasy pick.

Backup QB: Barkley will almost certainly enter 2017 as the No. 2, but he'll be one of the league's weaker ones. His career 63.7 passer rating attests to that, and the 49ers will be in deep trouble should he be pressed into starts. Like starter Brian Hoyer, he did toss three 300-yard games last year for the snakebitten Bears. But Barkley absolutely hemorrhaged turnovers and is generally overmatched in the lineup. If and when Hoyer struggles - provided the 49ers aren't surprisingly in contention - it's just as likely Kyle Shanahan turns to rookie Beathard. The Iowa prospect was appreciated enough for the 49ers to trade back into Round 3 and select him, so he has some stamp of approval. Still, even with a starting job, Beathard wouldn't draw any fantasy relevance. He was a middling prospect whom many thought would go undrafted, and this certainly doesn't look like the offense for a green passer to hit the ground running.

Running Backs

Starter: Carlos Hyde
Backup(s): Tim Hightower, Joe Williams [R], Kapri Bibbs
Fullback(s): Kyle Juszczyk

Starting RB: With the addition of new coach Kyle Shanahan, Hyde's arrow should be pointing up. He's a talented power runner - nimble for a bigger back, and typically landing near the top of the league in forcing missed tackles. Hyde impressively managed 79.6 yards per full game (and 4.6 per rush) in last year's injury-marred mess of a season, and few offensive heads have been friendlier to the fantasy value of running backs. Over the past 6 years, Shanahan backs have posted 4 seasons of 1,300+ scrimmage yards and 3 seasons of 13+ touchdowns. That includes mega-production from Devonta Freeman, a smallish, mediocre athlete who just churned out back-to-back RB1 seasons in Atlanta. That said, these 49ers are not those Falcons, and Hyde isn't the dual threat Freeman is. If he's ultimately set up as the focal point of an offense that funnels the ball to its lead back, then he'll deserve RB2 consideration in fantasy drafts. That's no given, though, and Hyde still carries tons of fantasy scars. His injury history is worrisome, having missed 14 of his first 48 NFL games and working back from a torn MCL in Week 16. He's a near-weekly fixture on the questionable list, and was also slowed last year by a concussion and a shoulder sprain. Fantasy owners also have to weigh Hyde's relative lack of receiving production. He's thoroughly dull when catching out of the backfield (just 5.7 yards per reception, career), and he's never drawn more than 8% of team targets. But perhaps most concerning is Peter King's report that Shanahan himself was the catalyst for the team's trade-up for rookie Joe Williams. Williams is no blue-chip prospect, but he's speedy and productive and seems more aligned with what Shanahan wants. There are early rumors that that could manifest itself into a 2017 timeshare, and either way, it's enough to bring real pause in targeting Hyde as a clear RB2. Ultimately, camp and preseason will tell the tale of his draft value. He's completely miscast as an early-round "set it and forget it" workhorse option, and he wouldn't be attractive as a timeshare back with his lack of receiving prowess. If Hyde can cement the starting job and remain healthy through the offseason, he'll warrant attention in the fifth round or so. But his peripherals are truly ugly, so he'd need everything to fall right for that to happen. In this offense, with a handpicked rookie breathing down his neck, it seems unlikely.

Backup RBs: Hightower won't be nearly as chic and valuable here as he was in New Orleans; talk about jumping out of the dinner party and into the frying pan. He crushed value as a late-career Saint, producing 1,252 yards and 9 touchdowns over 24 games. He thrived in Drew Brees' world-class offense (and while spelling ho-hum Mark Ingram), but as a 49er, he'll face an entirely different landscape. He looks far less apt to steal opportunity from a healthy Carlos Hyde than he did from Ingram. Hightower is now 31 and was out of football from 2012-14, and he was an athletically-starved plodder even in his prime. At this point, he seems just as likely to be surpassed on the depth chart and tumble out of the 49ers' plans as he does to hold the backup job. New coach Kyle Shanahan is apparently smitten with rookie Williams, and the team traded for reserve Bibbs during the draft. Either way, there's no value here while Hyde is healthy - and probably only Shaun Draughn-level upside when he's not. Williams is an intriguing prospect, and could threaten Hyde's workload if he shows particularly well in camp. He was exceptionally productive across nine games at Utah, averaging 168 scrimmage yards in 2016. He also posted the fourth-best speed score among combine running backs - just a hair below Leonard Fournette and Curtis Samuel - by running an exceptional 4.41 40-yard dash at 5'11" and 210 pounds. And the team traded up to nab him in Round 4, reportedly at the behest of Shanahan himself. If he shows well in camp and preseason games, he could prove a better fit in Shanahan's outside-zone running game. Bibbs could conceivably win the No. 3 job and bump Hightower off the roster. He's a special-teams contributor, which Hightower is not, and the 49ers did throw him into their mid-draft trade with the Broncos.

Fullback: Juszczyk was used fairly heavily in Baltimore, a 240-pound hybrid back who caught 78 passes over the past two years. 49ers GM John Lynch was impressed, guaranteeing him $10.5 million in March, so it's likely Juszczyk will fill a similar role in San Francisco. He's still not worth fantasy consideration in 14-team leagues, though, as a one-dimensional fullback in a likely toothless offense.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Pierre Garcon, Jeremy Kerley
Backups: Marquise Goodwin, Aldrick Robinson, Aaron Burbridge, Trent Taylor [R], Bruce Ellington, DeAndre Smelter

Starting WRs: If there's a 49er to target with plus-level confidence, it's definitely Garcon. He's not the most exciting receiver on the board, "boasting" a ho-hum 6.7% touchdown rate across his 8 seasons as an NFL contributor. But he's set up to be a PPR dynamo in San Francisco, where he'll again team with mega-supporter Kyle Shanahan atop a putrid depth chart. And that ho-hum reputation should bring all sorts of value in the middle rounds of PPR drafts. Simply put, Garcon was a volume monster in his two years under Shanahan in Washington. Over their 26 games together in 2012-13, Garcon averaged 9.6 targets, 6.0 receptions, and 76.1 yards - and that came in a fairly run-heavy Washington scheme, spearheaded by workhorse back Alfred Morris and rushing quarterback Robert Griffin III. Shanahan's offenses have almost always favored the X receiver noticeably, so it seems likely Garcon will remain the focal point of his passing game. And why not? These 49ers remain comically undermanned and undertalented at wideout and tight end; they didn't select a notable pass-catcher in the draft, and their top returning receiver (Jeremy Kerley) is a middling, slot-only option who didn't come to town by way of Shanahan's regime. It's hard to find any real options to siphon targets from Shanahan's X receiver. Garcon is unlikely to produce much explosiveness, so neither 1,000 yards nor 8 touchdowns are a lock. But PPR drafters would be wise to pounce in the middle rounds. He's a likely PPR WR3 who's widely available as a WR4 or lower. Kerley returns after a middling yet acceptable first year in the San Francisco slot. He emerged as the team's only starting-level option in 2016 - if he was that - catching 64 balls and 3 touchdowns. But Kerley is highly unlikely to again sniff even that modest usage. He's a slotman and a slotman only, and Shanahan's offense rarely funnels much volume there. And Kerley isn't really one to do much on his opportunity, "boasting" a near-invisible career touchdown rate of 4.9%. Barring an injury to Garcon, it's highly unlikely Kerley reaches fantasy relevance anytime soon. Even then, his ceiling wouldn't be far beyond 50-55 low-impact receptions, which isn't even draftable by PPR standards.

Backup WRs: This is a truly talent-starved bunch. None look like viable options as a No. 3 wideout, but at least one will see moderate snaps when starter Jeremy Kerley moves into the slot. Still, they'll largely be around for decoration's sake - none has ever held down a No. 3 job for very long, and none profile well in backing up Kerley inside. Goodwin and Robinson will both see some deep shots, and both are semi-adept long-range scorers, so they carry a whiff of value in performance leagues. Goodwin is a former Olympian and arguably the fastest receiver in football, but it's never translated to reliable fantasy relevance. Last year in Buffalo - thanks to numerous team injuries - marked his only season with more than 32 targets, and he's caught just 49 passes over 39 career games. A pint-sized 180-pounder, Goodwin is generally no more than window dressing. Robinson at least carries history with Kyle Shanahan - he served as Washington's No. 4 option in 2013, then rounded out Atlanta's depth chart last year. It bodes well that Shanahan brought him to San Francisco, but it's highly doubtful to come with a big role in mind. That 2013 season marked Robinson's biggest statistical season as a pro: 46 targets, 18 receptions, 3 touchdowns. He and Goodwin will likely toggle the No. 3/deep threat job throughout the year, and it's doubtful either will threaten 40 catches. Burbridge, last year's sixth-rounder, was also mega-productive in school, then saw a few snaps down the 2016 stretch. Still, he's an athletically-starved plodder and an exceptionally low priority for a regime that didn't draft him. If he lasts on the active roster, it will be as the No. 5 and 10 receptions would be an upset.

Tight Ends

Starters: Vance McDonald
Backups: Garrett Celek, Blake Bell, George Kittle [R]

A perennially replacement-level starter, McDonald was openly shopped during the draft, but will return as the team's top pass-catching tight end. That's fairly grim: the error-prone McDonald has never topped 36 yards per game for any of his 4 seasons. He's consistently struggled to secure the ball (a poor 54.2% career catch rate) and can't stay healthy. There's still theoretical upgrade in play - McDonald is a former second-round pick, and a fine blocker with consistent snaps - but he's shown strikingly little through four years. Simply put, there are numerous TE2 options available with similar floors but much stronger upsides. Celek is an elite blocker and versatile chess piece who consistently draws 35-40 snaps a game himself. He drew a career-high 51 targets last year, across just 13 games, and it's conceivable he eats even further into McDonald's role. But it's equally likely a new offensive staff and quarterback group look elsewhere in their development, so Celek's ceiling doesn't extend beyond 30 receptions or so.

Place Kicker

Robbie Gould: The 49ers lost Phil Dawson to the division rival Cardinals in free agency, so they signed long time Bears kicker Robbie Gould to replace him. Gould is the seventh most accurate field goal kicker all-time, and he made ten of ten attempts for the Giants last year after replacing Josh Brown. The 49ers haven't been a good fantasy kicker situation in recent years, mustering only 48 field goal attempts in the last two years. That doesn't look likely to change in new head coach Kyle Shanahan's first year, so Gould is at or near the bottom of our draft lists.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Jeremy Kerley, Raheem Mostert

Nine players returned a kickoff for the 49ers in 2016. Seven are no longer with the team. The lone remaining players are Kerley and Mostert, whose 4 combined returns were just 10% of San Francisco's total. The job is essentially wide open.

Punt Returners: Jeremy Kerley

While he hasn't gotten much work on his kickoffs, Kerley has been a primary punt returner since he first entered the league, including in 2016 for a San Francisco team that acquired him on the eve of the season.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Joe Staley, LG Zane Beadles, C Jeremy Zuttah , RG Josh Garnett, RT Trent Brown
Key Backups: Garry Gilliam, Daniel Kilgore, Brandon Fusco, John Theus, Tim Barnes

The 49ers' offensive line improved greatly this offseason with the signing of center Jeremy Zuttah. Zuttah made his first Pro Bowl lasts season and provides much needed veteran leadership on the interior of that unit. The left side is excellent, with agile Joe Staley at left tackle and Zane Beadles at left guard. Beadles was called on to play left tackle at the end of last season, and not many guards can make that switch, even in a spot start situation. The right side is more of a question, with right guard Josh Garnett still struggling to live up to first round billing and Trent Brown being pushed by Garry Gilliam at right tackle. The team also has interesting veteran depth in Brandon Fusco and Tim Barnes. Overall this line has seen some upheaval recently but they have climbed their way back to the cusp of the top tier. How high they can ultimately be rated will depend upon the play of their right side starters.

Team Defense

A few years ago, the 49ers defense was the envy of most of the league. Now they are slumming with the likes of the Browns and Saints in fantasy rankings. A revamp of their defense means that 2015 first-round pick Arik Armstead is only a small role player, but #3 overall pick Solomon Thomas should help offset that transition blunder. Navorro Bowman is back from injury and the team signed Malcolm Smith to help out in case their other first-round pick Reuben Foster, isn't ready this season due to his shoulder injury. Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch chose Robert Saleh to oversee a transition to the Seattle-style defense we've seen installed in Jacksonville and Atlanta. While the team has a strong group in the front seven, they are in a major rebuilding phase and likely to stay among the league's worst fantasy D/ST's.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE/DT Solomon Thomas [R], NT Earl Mitchell, DT/DE, DeForest Buckner, DE/DT Arik Armstead
Backups: DE/OLB Tank Carradine, DE Ronald Blair, DE/OLB Aaron Lynch, DT Quinton Dial, DE Chris Jones, DT DJ Jones [R], DE/OLB Elvis Dumervil

Starting DL: The 49ers are switching to a 4-3 defense under new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who was on the Seahawks staff for three years and then was the linebackers coach under Gus Bradley in Jacksonville from 2014-2016. #3 overall pick Solomon Thomas can play defensive tackle or defensive end and should fill a similar role to the one that Michael Bennett does for the Seahawks. The 49ers took advantage of an early free agent window for Mitchell, signing him to a four-year, 16 million deal after the Dolphins released him. He'll be a run stuffing presence. The team's previous two first-round picks, Armstead and Buckner, have unclear fits in the defense. They will adjust to having a more attacking approach in this one-gap defense, as opposed to the two-gap responsibilities in 2016. Buckner can line up at defensive end and hold up well against the run while setting the edge. He can also kick inside on passing downs and even revert to two-gap when asked. Armstead has a big frame and play inside at three-technique defensive tackle. Some have projected him as an outside pass rusher at LEO, but that marquee position in this defense should belong to Thomas. Armstead projects as a versatile player in this front, but he he hasn't demonstrated that versatility yet in a career that has been interrupted by injuries and inconsistent play.

Backup DL: The 49ers have a wide array of talents and abilities on the defensive line, and it's not quite clear how all of these backups will fit in. Carradine and Lynch may have to bulk up to fit at defensive end after being groomed as 3-4 outside linebackers, and Lynch is reportedly overweight again in the offseason, so his future is especially cloudy, even if the team does intend for him to play heavier, although Lynch has the raw ability to be an impact LEO if he gets it together. Carradine, Lynch, and Ahmad Brooks could all get snaps as outside pass rushers on passing downs with Buckner and Armstead shifting inside, but Carradine also saw time at five-technique in an early minicamp. Sixth-round pick DJ Jones does have a clear role behind Mitchell at nose tackle, and Blair can rotate with Armstead and Buckner as an inside pass rusher, but he also saw time as a LEO on the outside in an early minicamp. Former Dolphin Chris Jones gave the team some good snaps after he was claimed last year. He might have trouble making the roster in the new scheme with so many 49ers linemen having inside versatility and there is likely only one spot between him and Dial, who has been a starter at times and signed a three-year extension last year. The 49ers clearly have a lot more questions than answers both in terms of who will make the final roster on the line and the roles those players will play in the defense.


Starters: MLB Navorro Bowman, WLB Malcolm Smith, SLB Reuben Foster [R]
Backups: OLB Eli Harold, LB Brock Coyle, DE/OLB Ahmad Brooks, LB Ray-Ray Armstrong, OLB Pita Taumoepenu [R], SLB Dekoda Watson

Starting LBs: The 49ers got their third-ranked player in the draft at #31 when they traded back into the first round to get Foster. Some teams were concerned that he would need additional shoulder surgery, but the 49ers believe he won't and project him to be ready for the regular season. Stalwart linebacker Navorro Bowman will also be ready for the regular season and was surprisingly ahead of schedule in his return from an achilles tear last year. Bowman is highly likely to be the leading tackler and middle linebacker this year, but for the long term, Foster could be ticketed for the middle. The team signed Malcolm Smith to a five-year, 26.5 million dollar deal with 11.5 million guaranteed to be a top coverage linebacker. He projects on the weakside, but so does Foster. Smith also has the ability to play OTTO, one of the roles in the "Seattle" defense that is more like a 3-4 outside linebacker at times. It's possible the team could play Eli Harold, Ahmad Brooks, or Dekoda Watson at strong side linebacker, but their top three linebackers are Bowman, Foster, and Smith.

Backup LBs: Much like the defensive line group, the 49ers have a lot of pieces and not a lot of clarity on where they fit in. Harold has edge-rushing ability and the team is also looking at him on the strong side. Coyle has a ton of experience in this defense, having spent his career in Seattle before the 49ers signed him to a one-year, 1.45 million dollar deal with a 400,000 dollar signing bonus. He'll be a core special teams player and injury backup. Brooks was lining up with the first team on the strong side in an early minicamp. Taumoepenu is an undersized edge rusher that the team took in the sixth round this year. Armstrong was playing well inside for the team last year before a pectoral injury ended his season. His coverage ability could win a spot in this crowded group.

Defensive Backs

Starters: SS Eric Reid, FS Jimmie Ward, CB Ahkello Witherspoon [R], CB Rashard Robinson
Backups: CB Dontae Johnson, CB Keith Reaser, CB Will Redmond, S Jaquiski Tartt, CB K'Wuan Williams, CB Prince Charles Iworah, S Don Jones, DB Adrian Colbert [R], S Vinnie Sunseri

Starting DBs: The secondary is under construction just as much as the front seven, but unlike the front seven, the 49ers don't have a deep group of talent here. Eric Reid will be transitioning to a box safety role similar to Kam Chancellor's in Seattle. His 2016 was ended by a biceps injury. Ward will be the single-high safety a la Earl Thomas. The cornerback position is wide open after Tramaine Brock was released under the shadow of domestic violence charges and Ward moved to safety. Robinson is a very promising player in his second year, and he fits in a scheme that asks for more press coverage. He was excellent at times in his rookie year, and his length and speed will translate well, especially if he can bulk up and get stronger against the run. The 49ers hope the other spot will be manned by third-round pick Ahkello Witherspoon. He has a 6'3" frame with 4.45 speed and great measured explosiveness and quickness. Like Robinson, he might not be the best corner to rely on in run support.

Backup DBs: Johnson might be in a position to start if with Witherspoon doesn't look up to the task of starting in camp and the preseason. Johnson's development has been slow since he was a fourth-round pick in 2014, and he seemed to fall out of favor with the previous regime. Johnson also might not make the final roster if he doesn't push Witherspoon to start, although he has the length the "Seattle" defense calls for at corner. He'll compete for a roster spot with a long list of names, most prominently 2016 third-round pick Will Redmond who missed all of 2016 after he tore an ACL in October 2015. He has great speed and quickness and could be a surprise standout as a nickel back. Williams was projected as the Browns nickel back in 2016 before an ankle injury and the 49ers signed him to a minimal deal in free agency. Reaser is a smaller corner, along with Redmond, and they should compete with Williams for the nickel spot. The 49ers drafted Colbert in the seventh round, and he has safety and corner experience. At safety, Tartt projects as a box safety could be the long-term player there with Reid entering free agency next year, but he also lined up at free safety in an early minicamp. Jones was signed for his special teams ability, but he could also play behind Ward at free safety, which is where Sunseri lined up last year. Johnson could increase his chances of making the team if he can provide backup safety ability.

Last modified: 2017-06-05 15:00:41