You Should Think Twice before Drafting San Francisco 49ers in Fantasy Football
Fantasy football is kind of like Yelp.
On Yelp, a bunch of foodies and wannabe foodies get together to share their thoughts on local dining establishments, giving ratings and recommendations so that others can find a nice place to eat in town. I've been pretty happy with many of my Yelp-inspired trips to restaurants, so I can't really complain about the service in general. But there are some downsides to the Yelp idea.
The main problem is groupthink. The human brain is a powerful thing, and armed with the strong suggestion that "this place has really good food," it can make even the most boring, standard meal taste pretty darn good. Then after enjoying your "alright but not that great meal," you add your five-star review to keep the groupthink alive and to help sucker in more helpless visitors who will enjoy the culinary equivalent of placebo.
But every once in a while, you're able to break free and realize "this pizza is kinda boring and lifeless." You're able to figure out that the hot waitresses and cheap beer that earned the bar five stars from everyone else can't make up for the frozen-then-deep-fried-and-drowned-in-mediocre-hot-sauce wings. It's then that you realize that people, in general, can be wrong. They can be misled. And when a few people are misled together, and have a voice, they can influence the decisions of others.
And that's why you should think twice about where you draft offensive players from the San Francisco 49ers this year. There are plenty of rave reviews to go around about Colin Kaepernick and his band of bad boys by the Bay, but consider these facts when you get ready to double click on Michael Crabtree's name this fall.
Disappointing Portion Sizes in the 49ers Offense
The San Francisco offense finished 13th in the NFL last season using numberFire's Adjusted Net Expected Points metric. Net Expected Points, or NEP, measure overall production and efficiency based on game situations and down and distance plays, while the "adjusted" part means the numbers have been fixed to account for strength of schedule.
That 13th place ranking means the Niners were offensively inferior to the Tennessee Titans, Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons, among other teams. Yet Jake Locker, Kelvin Benjamin and Harry Douglas don't seem to receive quite the same bump in draft as the 49ers' offensive talent does.
Consider the trigger man for the San Francisco offense, Colin Kaepernick. Kap finished eighth among quarterbacks in Total NEP last season, which accounts for his contributions as a runner and a thrower. This is bolstered by his running, though, as his NEP as a passer ranked 10th, between Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.
I know what you're thinking. So what? He's being drafted as a low-end QB1 anway. Isn't that what we should expect? If he's the 10th best passer, and I take him as the 11th quarterback, I'm winning, right?
Not necessarily. If you were an NFL GM taking place in a league-wide redraft of players, and you got Kaepernick as the 11th quarterback off the board, then yes, you'd be getting great value. But fantasy football isn't as simple as finding the guy with the best NEP and putting him in your lineup. Net Expected Points is a valuable tool, telling us what truly occurred on a football field. And it helps us formulate our projections and rankings, too. But there are other factors that go into fantasy footballing.
One of them is opportunity. No team in 2013 dropped back to pass less often than the San Francisco 49ers. The Falcons and Browns both dropped back over 700 times last season, while the Niners only dialed up 456 pass plays. This led to a pass-to-run ratio of 0.90, the lowest in the league. The league average was 1.44 passes to every run play called.
And on top of being very run-heavy, the Niners ran the second-fewest plays in the league. The offense was boom-or-bust in that way, and didn't spend as much time on the field as the average offense.
But according to MyFantasyLeague.com's average draft position data, Colin Kaepernick is currently being taken ahead of Jay Cutler, who comes from the pass-heavy Chicago offense, and Tony Romo, from the pass-happy Dallas offense. Romo in particular should never be taken after Kap, because he's virtually identical to Kaepernick on a per-pass basis using our NEP data, but will throw the ball at least 100 more times. And if you're in a league that awards six points for a passing touchdown, Romo is a no-brainer over the 49ers' passer.
The play-calling for the 49ers also impacts the receivers. According to MFL's data, Michael Crabtree is being taken ahead of Wes Welker (of the pass-happy Broncos), Michael Floyd (of the pass-happy Cardinals) and Roddy White (the criminally underrated receiver for the pass-happy Falcons). Crabtree isn't that much better than any of those players, but even so, it's optimistic to think that he'll see a high volume of targets in this offense.
Last year, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis both finished in the top 10 in Reception NEP per target. That meant that, on a per-target basis, the two top 49ers pass-catchers did a lot of positive things for the San Fran offense. So again, why is this a bad thing?
Because it's on a per-target basis, and targets are going to be harder to come by next season for receivers on that roster. A healthy Michael Crabtree is joined by Stevie Johnson, Jon Baldwin, Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington, Vance McDonald, Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore as incoming or rising options on the depth chart. There's a lot to be happy about if you're a fan of the 49ers, but if you're a fantasy owner, you're going to be frustrated when you pick the right guy in the wrong situation.
Disappointing Variety on the Menu
So you might have cooled your jets a bit on Kaepernick and the passing attack. That's good. But you might be asking now "What about Frank Gore? What about the running game?"
Well, the truth about Gore is that he's not really that great anymore. Last season, out of the 22 backs with 200 or more carries, Gore finished 18th in Rushing NEP. His Success Rate (percentage of rushes that contribute positive NEP gains) and per-carry numbers ranked slightly higher, but the general story told by our numbers is that Gore isn't particularly efficient. He's a reliable, tough back - and the Niners could do a lot worse - but from an analytical perspective, he doesn't stand out at all.
That's because he's a high-volume back, and it's incredibly difficult to maintain efficiency of any kind when taking on such a big workload. That's why LeSean McCoy's season was so special last year, as he saw a ton of work and still produced at a very high level from an NEP standpoint.
But no one in San Francisco (apart from Kaepernick as a runner) is going to impress from a Net Expected Points standpoint, because that's just how the Niners roll. Running the ball and being physical is built into their DNA, and that's never going to appeal to metrics that measure efficiency. Running for a couple of yards over and over and occasionally breaking a big play or catching a defense napping with a read option or play action pass worked just fine for the 49ers last season, but it's certainly not the most efficient approach.
The 49ers are carried by their defense, and the offense doesn't need to set the world on fire. That's why Gore will continue to get the majority of the carries - he's going to show up, take the ball, follow his keys and blocks, and get back up to play another down.
Really, Gore is still as viable of an option as he's ever been, so why is Carlos Hyde being taken ahead of Lamar Miller and Fred Jackson, and Marcus Lattimore being taken off the board before Devonta Freeman and Shonn Greene? Fantasy football is about opportunity, and there's a much easier path to opportunity for Miller (a starter), Jackson (the best back from an efficiency standpoint on his team), Freeman (a rookie behind a disappointing, old starter) and Greene (a workhorse with a second-round rookie as his only competition).
Yes, the 49ers have a very talented offense, and that's a great thing if you root for them every Sunday as a fan. But as a fantasy player, it's time to think twice about where these players are going in drafts. This is, after all, an offense that runs the ball more often than it passes. And in doing so, the Niners earned themselves the 19th-best rushing offense using Adjusted Rushing NEP as a team in 2013. They're not exactly approaching offense from an analytical perspective.
But you don't have to be an analytics nerd to understand that a team that doesn't throw the ball often and that runs the ball a lot with a workhorse back isn't a great place to hunt for secondary and tertiary options to plug into your fantasy lineup. So stop following the groupthink and the hype surrounding Kaepernick's big-money contract and the appeal of an offense that you probably saw play quite a few times last season.
There are plenty of five-star reviews out there on the 49ers offense. But consider this one a contrarian warning. The variety in the menu will disappoint you, and the portion sizes aren't that good. I'd recommend taking a look at the Falcons (Roddy White is a great value) and the Cowboys (seriously, people, show Tony Romo some respect) as alternatives, because you just aren't going to get a good return on your investment by stocking up on 49ers in fantasy this season.