If you miss out on the top two tiers of running backs this year, and, just to be clear, that group goes no more than six deep, it makes all the sense in the world to wait on the position in favor of receivers and potentially a quarterback or tight end in the first three rounds. You can’t just ignore the position altogether, though. If you end up following this strategy, one which I plan to employ wherever I can, you’ll be targeting the fourth and fifth tiers of running backs for your starters. That means guys that are typically going anywhere from the fourth to seventh rounds. That also means you should familiarize yourself with the perennially underrated Frank Gore.
The prophets of doomsday first came for Gore back in 2011. Then 28 years old, they said he would have trouble staying healthy. They pointed to his career-low 11 games played the previous season as evidence. Then he went out and played all 16 games, running for 1,211 yards and eight touchdowns on 282 carries, scoring the 13th most fantasy points among running backs in standard-scoring leagues.
“Okay”, the prophets said in 2012, “we were wrong about Gore last year. But this is the year he breaks down.” Now firmly on the doorstep of his 30th birthday, there was no way a guy like Gore, who doesn’t have a ton of explosion and had taken a beating in his first seven years in the league, could continue to hold up as a reliable fantasy producer. He got 24 fewer carries, but played a full slate again, ran for 1,214 yards and hit paydirt nine times. It was enough to make him fantasy’s No. 11 running back.
“Alright, so we were wrong again about Gore,” they said. “But this year, we mean it.” The 2013 season wasn’t that long ago, so you probably remember what Gore did. He played all 16 games, ran for 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns, and was the most consistent offensive player on a team that went to the NFC Championship Game. He finished the season as the 13th-ranked running back in standard-scoring leagues, and has been in the top 15 every season in which he has played at least 14 games, except for his rookie year.
Now Gore is back and, at 31 years old, carrying an average draft position that places him in the early-fifth round of 12-team leagues and just barely inside the RB2 class. When will all the fantasy owners learn from history? Yes, as Gore gets older, he becomes more of a risk. He has more than 2,600 touches in his career, and the 49ers will certainly do all they can to keep his 2014 mileage in check so he can be healthy in December and January. He also is not the receiving threat he once was, catching just 61 passes in the last three seasons combined.
At the same time, fantasy owners are again underrating Gore. First of all, Kendall Hunter is done for the season after tearing his ACL, and LaMichael James suffered a wrist injury that will have him out until at least late August. That leaves Gore and rookie Carlos Hyde virtually alone in the backfield. The Ohio State product will undoubtedly have a role in the offense, but Gore will again be the workhorse, especially at the goal line. The San Francisco offensive line ranked second in run blocking according to Pro Football Focus, and returns intact this year. The veteran simply knows how to get it done, and there’s no reason to expect him to go down with an injury. If you’re adopting a strategy that focuses on receivers early, make sure to circle and star Gore’s name on your cheat sheet.
Most overrated player
Colin Kaepernick, QB -- Kaepernick is currently the 11th quarterback off the board in an average draft, right in front of Tony Romo and Jay Cutler. The difference in fantasy points per game between Kaepernick and Cutler was negligible last year, and Romo outpaced both of them. Cutler has the best receiving duo in the league in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, as well as an elite pass-catching back in Matt Forte. Romo has a top-tier receiver of his own with Dez Bryant, and a dynamic back in DeMarco Murray. Cutler and Romo both play in pass-heavy offenses, whereas the 49ers are anachronistic in today’s NFL given how reliant their offense is on running the ball. Kaepernick, of course, is a major part of that. Quarterbacks who derive a large portion of their fantasy value from running the ball are inherently more risky than those who do not. First of all, there’s always a greater risk of injury tied to a running quarterback. Second, rushing stats, especially touchdowns, are simply more volatile. Kaepernick himself provides a great example. Despite not starting until the second half of the season in 2012, he had five rushing scores that year. He had four last year even though he started all 16 games. Kaepernick is no more than a glorified fantasy backup.
Most underrated player
Carlos Hyde, RB -- It should be clear from the intro what I think of Gore, but there’s plenty of room on this team for two running backs to be relevant in fantasy leagues. With Hunter on the shelf and James banged up, Hyde was gifted the backup role in San Francisco, but he likely would have earned it anyway. In his final year with the Buckeyes, he ran for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns on 208 carries, and landed with the 49ers after they used the 57th overall pick on him in the 2014 draft. At an even six feet and 235 pounds, Hyde can be the type of bruising back that can take some of the short-yardage beating away from Gore. He isn’t much of a receiving threat, and he’ll have to prove himself in pass protection to see consistent time on third downs. More likely, Gore will be in that role. However, with the Niners being as run-heavy as they are, it’s hard to believe that they won’t have two running backs worthy of owning in fantasy leagues. Hyde may not be underrated by the time your draft rolls around, but he certainly is right now. Keep an eye on how his role in the offense develops in training camp and exhibition games.
QB: Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert, McLeod Bethel-Thompson
RB: Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde, LaMichael James, Jewel Hampton, Marcus Lattimore
WR: Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Jonathan Baldwin, Steven Johnson, Kassim Osgood, Quinton Patton
TE: Vernon Davis, Al Netter
We’ve come to expect the 49ers to feature dominant defenses under Jim Harbaugh, and last year was no disappointment. San Francisco was tied for 19th with 37 sacks, but had 30 takeaways, returning five of them for touchdowns. Their dominance extended more to the real-life realm, but they were still very good in fantasy, holding each position group well in check. Pro Football Focus ranked the Niners as the third-best defense, trailing only the Seahawks and Chiefs. They were especially good against the pass, ranking third in pass rush and second in pass coverage.
The 3-4 scheme that has been so successful is back again, with Patrick Willis again leading the way. The linebacker had 104 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles in 14 games last year, and is a near-consensus top-10 defensive player in IDP leagues. Running mate NaVorro Bowman will likely miss the first half of the season after suffering a torn ACL in the playoffs, but the team believes he might be able to return around the midway point of the year. Aldon Smith will have to serve a suspension after repeated violations of the league’s substance abuse policy, but the length of the suspension is not yet known. In 11 games last year, he had 8.5 sacks, and he has taken down the quarterback 42 times in 43 career games. If his troubles are truly behind him, he can be a dominant force and take the San Francisco defense to another level.
Outside of the linebackers, there aren’t very many IDP-worthy players, here. The line of Justin Smith, Glenn Dorsey and Ray McDonald is very effective from a real-life standpoint, and thus makes this defense better in fantasy leagues that use team defense, but none warrants much consideration in IDP leagues. Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver, Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea are expected to be the starters in the secondary, with Donte Whitner decamping for Cleveland. It remains to be seen how this group will come together, especially after pass coverage was such a strength for the 49ers a season ago.
Whether or not this defense will be as good as it has been in recent years depends largely on the returns of Aldon Smith and Bowman. As it stands, San Francisco is just outside the top five at the position.