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Colin Kaepernick Will be a Top 5 Fantasy Quarterback in 2014

Kaepernick 6_25

The best strategy you can deploy when entering a fantasy draft is simple: keep an open mind. Whether you tend to pay for an early quarterback if the price is right or you tend to wait, you have to let the draft-flow help make decisions for you. I touched on keeping an open mind about early QBs in my last article; let’s flip the switch and talk about a QB getting drafted later in the eighth or ninth round, as signs point toward him building upon last year’s low-end QB1 performance and ending 2014 as a top five signal caller.

It isn’t groundbreaking to say that the 49ers are a run-first team that wins games with great defense. To date, this game script has capped the ceiling of San Francisco’s skill guys, thus capping the perceived value of Colin Kaepernick.  The piece of this narrative that doesn’t add up for me is the sentiment that the 49ers will be able to run the rock as often as in the past because the defense doesn’t look nearly as scary as it did last year.

Aldon Smith is yet to face charges, and it doesn’t appear that he will receive jail time. He will, however, have to face Roger Goodell. We should assume that a suspension of up to six games will be handed down. Beat your significant other, risk lives while driving intoxicated, and carry illegal weapons. Just don’t smoke weed.1 What happens to Smith should he commit another crime? How confident are we that he will turn things around? Navarro Bowman is sidelined until what looks to be midseason. How long until he is able to return to 2013 form? Ahmad Brooks has shown signs of his age as he has regressed year-by-year since 2012 per profootballfocus ratings. His raw stats are deceiving as he missed almost as many tackles as he made, and no other outside linebacker was penalized more.

From a secondary standpoint, Donte “Hitner” Whitner took his talents to South Beach Cleveland, and much like Brooks, Antoine Bethea looks to be succumbing to Father Time as opposing QBs have an NFL rating above 100 when throwing his direction. First-round defensive back Jimmie Ward is likely best suited to help in nickel packages or as a center fielder with his 5’ 11” 193 lbs. frame, so this addition doesn’t appear to have high impact in the near term. As dominating as Patrick Willis is, he can’t be everywhere on every play. This defense looks primed for a bit of regression in 2014 and susceptible to the big play.

In addition to the question marks on the defensive side of the ball, Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh were pretty methodical this offseason while building Kaepernick’s supporting cast. Billie Bean called his team scouts out in “Moneyball” for thinking they could replace Jason Giambi. You can’t replace the players we discussed via free agency and the draft, and to that point the 49ers opted to strengthen what has traditionally been second fiddle–the offense.

The 49ers took to the trade market to acquire Stevie Johnson for a fourth-round draft pick. Johnson’s 2013 season was a disaster: he started the season coming off a back injury, and it didn’t help that none of the three QBs in Buffalo were able to achieve a 60 percent Completion Percentage. From 2010 – 2012 with Ryan Fitzpatrick achieving above 60% of his passes, Johnson finished with three straight 1,000-yard seasons. Johnson isn’t going to take the top off a defense, but he’s a chain mover, and that’s what the 18th-ranked 49ers need in terms of improving on third down. Johnson also converted a respectable 63.3 percent of first downs (so did Andre Johnson), but Stevie was the Johnson that lacked opportunity as he only converted 32 first downs total. From 2010-2012, Johnson converted 61 percent of the passes thrown his way between 7-10 yards, and that’s why the 49ers are bringing him in.

In 2013, the 49ers’ third-best receiving option wasn’t even a wide receiver until Michael Crabtree returned; before that it was full back Bruce Miller. Johnson brings positive impact to this offense, and his presence will be needed when the 49ers find themselves having to score more points than in the past.

Quinton Patton missed much of 2013 due to a foot injury, and he’s going to compete for playing time with newly acquired rookie Bruce Ellington. It looks like both will have limited opportunity in the short-term with the Johnson acquisition, and Patton appears best suited for a supporting cast role. If either Anquan Boldin or Johnson go down, Patton looks like a prospect that could come in and help move the chains.

From a RotoViz evaluation perspective, Ellington is somewhat capped long-term as he’s likely maxed out from a talent perspective given his age and low final-season DR. At the same time, Ellington fits in nicely in this offense where he just needs to turn one-yard targets into four-yard gains for first downs. As Lord Reebs mentioned, the 49ers WRs are all effective in the red zone, and now they’ve replenished their talent pool with guys that can help get the ball to the red zone. The argument for Ellington was made here by FD, and this is the exact situation FD was describing.

I also played around with the Game Splits app and threw Kaepernick into the magic eightball alongside Crabtree. Crabtree brought immense impact to the 49ers passing game upon his return, as you can see below.


Crabtree Splits

The fantasy community seems very down on Crabtree. The narrative is that San Francisco is a run-first team that signed Johnson, and these guys could very well cannibalize one another, like James Todd has noted. Whether or not you agree with this, let’s look at Crabtree’s impact on Kaepernick.

In the five games Kaepernick played with Crabtree on the field:

  • 12.80 percent increase in pass attempts
  • 22.80 percent increase in completions
  • 25 percent increase in yards passing
  • 10 percent increase in TDs
  • 11 percent increase in target depth
  • 2.20 percent decrease in interceptions

Five games is a large enough sample size for me to feel really good about the above performance spikes, and it’s also clear to me that Crabtree hate has gone too far. Again, it sure looks like the 49ers may find themselves having to air it out more than in the past. What would have happened to Kaepernick’s fantasy output if Crabtree was available for the entire year in 2013? Using the above increases from the five weeks with Crabtree, let’s apply it to the first 12 weeks before Crabtree returned to action.

Weeks 1-12YardsTDsINTs
2013 Actual2037147
2013 Hypothetical2546156

As you can see above, Crabtree’s statistical presence had he played in the first 12 weeks would have netted Kaepernick an additional 2.5-2.9 Fantasy Points/ Game depending on your scoring format. These additional 30-35 points would have placed Kaepernick on par with both Andy Dalton and Cam Newton. The above numbers are also not taking into account the outcome that presents itself when you add Johnson, a healthy Patton, and a fresh Ellington in as options.

The 49ers are a conservative grind-it-out team that has been able hang its hat on great defense. But that defense isn’t quite the same, roles have reversed, and the offense will have to pick up the slack in 2014. New receiving acquisitions plus a healthy Crabtree are going to remove the cap for Kaepernick–he’ll be an elite fantasy option.

  1. Welcome to Roger’s Law  (back)

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