The summer is here, meaning we're getting closer to the start of fantasy football drafts. Success in those drafts will come from landing terrific bargains in the middle to late rounds while avoiding players who could see their numbers decline compared to 2020. However, that latter exercise isn't easy, especially in the case of players who are among the elite at their position or are coming off breakout seasons in the stat sheets.
Case in point. In 2004, Michael Clayton emerged into a fantasy asset as a rookie with 80 catches, 1,193 yards, and seven touchdowns for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He finished 14th in fantasy points and became a high-round selection in most 2005 fantasy drafts. Fantasy folks just trusted that because Clayton was so good in his rookie campaign, he'd be just as good or better the following season. Unfortunately, those who sunk a prominent pick into the former LSU product ended up with a bust.
Clayton missed two games in 2005, and his average stats per game went downhill. He caught 32 passes for 372 yards and didn't score a touchdown and saw his points-per-game average decline from 15.5 to a mere five. Clayton wasn't fantasy-relevant again.
The point here is that few folks saw this coming because Clayton was so good in 2004. That leads me to this series, aptly named “The Fantasy Case Against…” where I’ve done my due diligence in looking at players who everyone seems to think is a sure bet to become uber-productive after finding success or showing potential in past seasons.
This isn't me trying to sway you from picking these players; it's just something for you to think about and make your own decisions on players ahead of your fantasy drafts. The only thing predictable about the NFL and fantasy football is that it's often unpredictable (see Michael Thomas last season), so do with this information what you will.
The Fantasy Case Against ...
Justin Herbert | Jalen Hurts | Zach Wilson (Dynasty) | Alvin Kamara | Darrell Henderson | Derrick Henry | Michael Carter | David Montgomery | Saquon Barkley | D’Andre Swift | Brandon Aiyuk | Ja'Marr Chase | Julio Jones | Justin Jefferson | Kenny Golladay | Kyle Pitts | Travis Kelce
Next up, let’s look into 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk.
Aiyuk finished his first NFL season ranked 35th among fantasy wide receivers, posting 60 catches on 96 targets for 748 yards and five touchdowns. Those totals seem modest on the surface, but he played in just 12 games. If we project his average of 15.4 points a game over a full 16 contests, Aiyuk would have been on pace to score 246.4 points. That would have ranked him 1.1 points behind A.J. Brown for 13th among wideouts.
Did You Know?
Aiyuk averaged eight targets, and five catches a game for the season, but he had a six-game stretch (Weeks 7-15) where he was among the elite players at his position. In that time, the Arizona State product scored 17-plus points in each game, led all wideouts in targets per game (11.5), and scored the third-most points behind only Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill. Aiyuk was also tied for third among receivers in broken tackles (6), tied for 10th in red-zone targets, and tied for eighth in yards after the catch in those contests.
With the good comes the bad, however.
Aiyuk did a lot of his damage as the default No. 1 option in the passing attack. Fantasy star George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and Aiyuk played in just four games together last season, as all three players missed time due to a combination of injuries and COVID-19. Kittle was out for all but two games from Weeks 7-15 (Aiyuk’s breakout), and Samuel was out four times. Those absences opened up more opportunities for Aiyuk to produce.
In the four games the trio played together, Kittle had a 30.1 percent target share and averaged 20.7 points. Samuel saw a 16.5 percent share and averaged 10.5 points. Aiuyk was third in target share at 15.8 and averaged just under 12 points per game.
Aiyuk had a 23.3 percent target share during his bananas six-game stretch and put up 20.8 points on average. Again, that stretch saw Kittle play two games and Samuel four.
Remember the days of Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens? Well, it's been a while since the 49ers have had an elite fantasy wide receiver. In fact, just two (Anquan Boldin – 2013, 2014, Michael Crabtree - 2012) have scored more than 200 fantasy points in the last 10 years. They're also the lone Niners wideouts to produce 1,000+ yards in a single season in that time. Unbelievably, they're also the only two receivers to have more than 72 receptions or score more than five touchdowns in a single season since 2011.
Mike McDaniel is the new offensive coordinator in San Francisco, but head coach Kyle Shanahan will continue to make the play-calling shots. The wide receiver position has had some success under Shanahan through his years as an offensive coordinator, but not lately. In fact, no wideout in a Shanahan offense has finished better than WR31 (Samuel – 2019) during his time with the Niners. Aiyuk is considered a player who could buck this trend and help fantasy fans find fantasy gold, so these trends are notable.
I am a fan of Aiyuk going into this season. He has the size and playmaking skills to be the next top wideout in the Niners pass attack. But you have to wonder just how much he can produce if Kittle and Samuel remain free of injuries. Again, he averaged fewer than 12 fantasy points in games where all three players were active. Such a total this season would be a disappointment in fantasy land based on heightened expectations.
Also, keep in mind that the Niners could (and likely will) start a rookie in Trey Lance at some point in the season. That could be good news for the Niners pass attack, as he’s seen as an obvious upgrade over veteran incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo. But there’s no way to know if Lance will look more like Justin Herbert or Tua Tagovailoa as a rookie.
At this point, I like Aiyuk as a high-end No. 3 fantasy wideout who could push for No. 2 value this season. But based on the returns of Kittle and Samuel, not to mention the trend of the Niners not producing great fantasy wideouts, Aiyuk comes with some risk.
Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for your late-breaking fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!