Getting the 49ers right is key to unlocking 2021 fantasy football success

·11 min read

Getting the 49ers right is the key to unlocking fantasy football success in 2021.

I must have said it 100 times on our Yahoo Fantasy Football Forecast this summer. I just keep coming back to this team as an inflection point in our decision-making this year because, while we should all be ecstatic about the potential of a Kyle Shanahan offense that added Trey Lance to a crop of great young players, there are just so many possible outcomes on the table for everyone involved.

It starts at the quarterback position. One of the challenges with projecting this offense is that the overall structure may change dramatically based on who plays quarterback.

Jimmy G or Trey Lance?

One thing is clear: Jimmy Garoppolo will start Week 1 and it’s looking more and more like he’ll have to play his way out of the job. That means there’s a scenario where Garoppolo starts deep into the season if the 49ers are winning games and he’s not actively holding them back. If the 49ers are 7-2 and Garoppolo has been about average, they’re unlikely to just yank him for Lance. Don’t think the soon-to-be way overplayed Alex Smith/Patrick Mahomes dynamic isn’t in the back of their mind with these two players.

An offense captained by Garoppolo might mean a slight uptick in passing volume for this team. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not as if they’ll be airing the ball out. During the Super Bowl run of 2019, Garoppolo started all 16 games and the 49ers ranked just 29th in pass attempts. However, Lance’s ability as a rusher on option plays (already demonstrated in the preseason) could further deflate the passing volume for this team.

On the other hand, Lance’s ability to move and his superior vertical game could straight-up make this offense more efficient than it would be with Garoppolo. Sure, you could take the negative angle when it comes to Lance’s rushing as to how it will affect the pass-catchers. But at the same time, if Lance is taking off scrambling on third downs or moving the chains on nightmare-inducing option plays, it’s just going to increase the chances for red-zone trips and ultimately, touchdowns.

Trey Lance #5 of the San Francisco 49ers
The rushing dimension Trey Lance brings can boost the 49ers' overall scoring chances. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

Of course, there’s another scenario where Shanahan just can’t leave the Ferrari in the garage. It’s not ready to drive on the freeway yet but he’s at least gonna spin it around the block. The more I think about it the more I believe we might see Garoppolo start but Shanahan ultimately ends up too tempted by the run-option part of the playbook, so he throws Lance out there as a situational threat on 10 percent of the snaps every week. That will make projecting the team even more difficult.

There are several paths where this team is an awesome real-life squad and overall great offense but is truly frustrating for fantasy football.

Our requirements for the pass-catchers are quite high. Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle, and Deebo Samuel are all viewed optimistically heading into 2021. We know there’s not going to be a boatload of passing targets to dole out. And if Lance starts a majority of the games, JJ Zachariason of FanDuel already laid out the long odds of a rookie quarterback elevating multiple pass-catchers. There are so many ways the distribution of this very small, but potentially delicious pie could be doled out between this trio. Working in their favor is the fact that there is little to no attractive depth behind them at receiver or tight end. We could see Aiyuk, Samuel and Kittle account for almost 60 percent of the team targets by themselves. Even still, it’s tough to be ahead of consensus on more than one of these three.

For what it’s worth, my chip is placed on Brandon Aiyuk.

Brandon Aiyuk stands out as a clear draft target — but what about the RBs?

Give me the wideout who looks like an ascending superstar as an X-receiver, who proved he could win at all levels in his rookie year. I don’t care about target totals from the minuscule sample of games where Aiyuk played with both Kittle and Samuel. Aiyuk’s rookie season looks like a normally promising debut where the more the team relied on him, the more he thrived. No matter what, he’ll be playing with superior passers in 2021 than what he dealt with late last season.

There are also several forks in the road when it comes to the backfield. Rookie Trey Sermon and Raheem Mostert are destined to be in some kind of timeshare. You need to take a stand on how that plays out.

Even with split carries, whoever ends up being the 1a in this backfield will be a huge fantasy asset. We know this is one of the best rushing ecosystems in the entire NFL. For this reason, I’ve been taking Trey Sermon ahead of ADP.

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I don’t believe the rookie will fully cast Mostert aside. Unless there’s an injury, that’s not in the range of outcomes. However, if Sermon owns the passing-down role (that’s how he’s been used in the preseason) and handles slightly more carries per week than Mostert, he would walk right into that 1a gig. It only makes sense for the 49ers to limit Mostert’s usage. Given his injury history, they can keep him fresh for the later chapters of the season with Sermon handing the load more often. Mostert’s big-play potential would then be able to shine.

That’s a pretty rosy and fully clear picture of how it could go. It could be dead wrong. There’s another scenario where this backfield is just straight muddled and difficult to decipher on a weekly basis.

One thing is totally clear when it comes to the San Francisco 49ers in 2021: They’re going to be an unbelievably exciting offense that we want exposure too but there are so many possible outcomes on their spectrum. If you haven’t taken a stand on how things will play out, it’s past time you find your way to some conviction takes.

Other figures who will “shape the season”

Tom Brady

I 100 percent buy the talk out of Tampa Bay leading up to their Super Bowl win that this team, and especially the offense, was just starting to gel at the end of the regular season. It’s a scary proposition and given the reality that this was Brady’s first year in a very foreign offensive system with a bevy of new players, it’s believable. Especially given the cloud of the COVID offseason.

So I’m not worrying about the target share for these three eclectic Bucs’ receivers. I’m siding with the idea that Brady has a historic-type season in the first season this team is truly fully stocked.

Would anyone truly be surprised if Brady has a 2013 Peyton Manning type year? Manning threw for over 5,000 yards and 55 touchdowns in his second season with Denver. You could argue that a receiver corps with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown is even better than Manning’s Broncos group. All of those guys might be Top-20 receivers in the league right now. That’s not to mention all the other bit players in the Bucs’ offense.

If Brady has that type of year, everyone is going to eat. It’s going to be a great year to draft Tampa Bay's passing-offense players in fantasy football.

Ryan Fitzpatrick

The veteran quarterback has had a windy career path but he’s never had a shot like he’ll get in 2021. Ryan Fitzpatrick walks into this year as Washington’s clear-cut starter. There’s no subpar starter to replace, no promising young early-round draft pick lurking behind him.

He’s also never enjoyed a setup quite as good as what Washington has to offer.

Washington Football Team quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14)
Will we see the best version of Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2021? (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Washington’s offense offers young star power at the top (Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson), strong complementary guys (Curtis Samuel and Logan Thomas), and legitimate depth (Dyami Brown, Adam Humphries, JD McKissic, etc.). Fitzpatrick and co. will be backed by a potential top-five defense. That’s the perfect mix for quarterback efficiency.

If Fitzpatrick can play legitimately good, stable football for a full season he will be responsible for propelling all those offensive stars to glory and way outkick his own QB20 consensus ranking.

Dak Prescott

If Dak Prescott is even close to his old form he could get right back to the heights he was playing at in 2020. The Cowboys’ offense will push for ungodly heights and fantasy championships will be won because of their efforts. It could all result in an NFC East title.

Fantasy managers have already baked in that reality into ADP — even though there are several disaster scenarios that exist.

An injury-slowed or compromised Dak Prescott is going to turn the NFL on its head this year. At the very least, that would leave a lot of frustrated fantasy gamers holding the bag with all their highly-drafted Dallas players. We hope that doesn’t happen.

Sean Payton

Typically you don’t want to draft running backs in the top-five picks who are going to play on bad offenses. You don’t have to squint at the Saints’ depth chart to see a scenario where they’re a bad offense this year.

However, the fact that Sean Payton still exists is likely to keep this offense from being an outright disaster.

I’m always fascinated with what happens to one partner in a highly successful NFL marriage when their running mate exits the stage. Payton’s second act in New Orleans without Drew Brees could be one of the most interesting of all time. How Payton manages to help the Saints offense maintain its dignity with Jameis Winston at the controls and a vagabond cast of characters filling in for Michael Thomas will be mega fascinating.

Sean McVay

Unlike Sean Payton, McVay seems to have entered his coaching career second-act quite quickly. Actually, since he had to adjust so forcefully following his “exposure” during that run-up to a Super Bowl loss, you might argue the Matthew Stafford era is his third act.

McVay has already been forced to shuffle the chairs around before the curtain has even risen on this play.

The Cam Akers injury altered the plans for his offense. Now, the team is looking at a split backfield between Darrell Henderson and Sony Michel, two intriguing talents but not the picture of reliability. It’s a far cry from what could have been with Akers, a guy that was clearing 20 touches and pushing for 70-plus percent of the snaps once he was fully onboarded late last year.

None of that, nor any other quandary this offense will face, will matter as long as McVay is able to truly elevate what’s previously been a hyper-efficient offense by getting the best out of Matthew Stafford. It seems as if the football world over does believe in the high-end of the range of outcomes here. That’s not really reflected in fantasy ADP, where no Rams players are picked in the first 40 selections.

Najee Harris

One non-quarterback or head coach for good measure!

I’ve already laid out the path Najee Harris is destined to walk down as the Steelers’ feature back. No need to repeat the obvious. We know the volume will be there but what if it works and the Steelers revive themselves as a balanced offense? Fewer pass attempts might not be a bad thing for the players in the passing game.

The Steelers desperately need a shot of efficiency in their aerial attack. Having a reliable run game could help. They would no longer need to use Diontae Johnson on those little pop-gun passes as an extension of the run game. He could actually run some downfield routes. Less on Ben Roethlisberger’s plate could mean more. Chase Claypool could be a huge target on downfield play-action plays that teams would have to actually respect.

If the Steelers are about to enjoy an offensive revival and give one last glory run to Roethlisberger, Najee Harris has to work out as more than just a fantasy volume monster, which is already a lock.

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