I have some breaking news for you. The San Francisco 49ers are not a good football team. In fact, the same San Francisco 49ers who not too long ago came within a foot of victory in Super Bowl XLVII now may well be the worst team in the National Football League.
However, for IDP owners there may be a silver lining to this dark cloud. With new head coach Chip Kelly running his breakneck offense with personnel that are, um, ungood the San Francisco defense is going to be on the field a lot in 2016. No team played more defensive snaps last year than Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles, and it’s a good bet that the 49ers will lead the league in that category in 2016.
And every defensive snap is an opportunity for a player to make a tackle. To rack up a sack. To intercept a pass. In other words — to accrue fantasy points.
Number in parentheses denotes 2015 positional finish in Fantasy Sharks Default IDP Scoring.
The 49ers have been trying to replace defensive end Justin Smith from the day “Cowboy” hung up his spurs. To date the 49ers haven’t had much luck, and for the second straight season the Niners looked to a young end from the University of Oregon in Round 1 of the NFL Draft.
This time it was DeForest Buckner (DNP) at No. 7 overall, who has drawn comparisons both to 2015 first-rounder Arik Armstead (DL142) and Calais Campbell (DL20) of the Arizona Cardinals. However, one NFL scout told Lance Zierlein of NFL.com he thinks Buckner might be better than those players. “His comp is going to be Calais Campbell or Arik Armstead but I think he’s more talented coming out than either one of those guys,” the scout said. “He’s twice the player Armstead was coming out.”
Buckner told Taylor Price of the team’s website he’s working hard to shorten the learning curve for defensive linemen that often accompanies the jump from college to the pros. “It’s been great to get my feet wet and get to know the speed of the game,” Buckner said. “I believe in my abilities and try to play with a lot of confidence so I’m able to make plays.”
That’s all well and good, but it’s a rarity for rookie linemen to make a big statistical impact. Buckner has quite a bit of dynasty value and might be worth a late flier in deeper redraft IDP leagues, but expectations for 2016 need to be tempered.
After a 2015 season that saw him amass an NFL-high 154 total tackles, it’s safe to say that inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman (LB3) is “back.” The Niners appear to think so, having signed the 28-year-old to a four-year extension last month that will pay Bowman $11 million a season.
Bowman told ESPN’s Nick Wagoner that he isn’t about to rest on his laurels now that his bank account is full. “My next goal is to be a Hall of Famer,” Bowman said. “I feel like 10 years is good enough to get into that. If I feel like playing after that, I will continue to do so. You never want to leave any money on the table, but you definitely want to leave this game being able to walk.”
The ILB spot next to Bowman is in flux, the subject of a three-way competition between Michael Wilhoite (LB56), Gerald Hodges (LB87) and Ray-Ray Armstrong (LB165). Bowman told David Fucillo of SB Nation he’s confident he’ll be able to work with whoever he lines up beside. “I think I communicate with all three guys about the same,” Bowman said. “So it’s just about me feeling comfortable, able to talk to them, them being able to listen. But there’s no rush to really find that out. Coach is going to put the best guy out there, and if the competition runs through the first game, then guys just have to deal with it. But it’s just about a line of communication, both guys just being on the same page.”
The status of the competition is clear as mud. It appeared that Hodges had moved ahead, but Armstrong has made a late push, and regardless of the “winner” the spot next to Bowman has all the makings of a carousel. If I had to pick one Hodges would be the guy, but my confidence level is negligible.
Not so with Bowman. On a defense that will be on the field all day, playing next to a questionable talent, Bowman’s situation is as good as it gets. He’s my No. 1 fantasy linebacker in 2016.
Last year, an injury to strong safety Antoine Bethea (DB160) early in the season opened a door for youngster Jaquiski Tartt (DB73) to start, and Tartt seized the opportunity, logging 65 tackles and a handful of big plays. However, Bethea is healthy again in 2016, and the 32-year-old told Price that while he welcomes his role as a mentor he also isn’t ready to give up his first-team slot just yet.
“I love to go out there and play,” Bethea said, “but when it’s time for those guys to come to me and ask questions or if I see somebody doing something that maybe I could give them a pointer or two, that’s when I do that.”
Earlier this summer, Bethea was one of IDP’s best values in the secondary, as mistaken drafters under the impression Tartt might start kept Bethea’s asking price low. Tartt will see snaps as a third safety and subpackage player, but Bethea’s the player to grab. Given the state of the San Francisco defense and the linebackers in front of him, there’s top-10 fantasy upside there if things break the right way.
As Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, free safety Eric Reid (DB78) is looking at an expansion of his role in 2016 to include covering tight ends — and that’s just fine with the 24-year-old. “I just think it’s something I can do to help the team, especially with the tight ends we play in this division and that we are going to play this year,” Reid said. “When they get in two tight-end personnel, we don’t have to be in nickel … Hopefully, it just gives our defense a little versatility.”
Reid had a pick-six in the team’s second preseason game, and he was a low-end DB3 in 2013, when he had four interceptions. However, last year he was shut out in that column and finished outside the top 75 at his position. He’s too big play reliant to merit even a late flier except in the deepest of IDP leagues.