Fantasy football owners aren’t likely thinking about the San Francisco 49ers defense on draft day. But this unit might be worth a look in deeper leagues. Niner Noise explains why.
A year ago, you would have been a fool to hold onto the San Francisco 49ers defense and special teams unit in your fantasy football league.
But 2017 marks a new year, a new head coach, new general manager, new defensive coordinator and a slew of new players potentially capable of turning this group into a sleeper pick this season.
Granted, there are plenty of other fantasy options out there for your defense and special teams. You’d be silly to pass up on defenses from the Seattle Seahawks or Houston Texans to grab San Francisco’s unit, which is coming off a historically bad 2016 campaign.
San Francisco 49ers
At the same time, it wouldn’t be the worst of ideas to look at this group as a possible sleeper.
ESPN already ranks the Niners as the No. 18 option, with a projected point total of 90. That’s not terrible and marks a significant improvement over what was seen last season.
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why.
A New Offense Sparing the Defense
Under former head coach Chip Kelly, the 49ers led the league in fastest average time between offensive snaps — 25.43 seconds, per Football Outsiders. Yet the Niners were dead last in the league for average offensive drive length, which was only 2:11.
You can do the math. Kelly’s offense simply wasn’t on the field long enough to give adequate rest to the defense. Combined with a ton of other problems, the defense was set up to fail.
And fail it did.
Meanwhile, the 2016 Atlanta Falcons were 23rd in time between snaps (28.29 seconds). While then-Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, now the Niners head coach, had much more talent in Atlanta than he does in San Francisco, the snap times could be very similar.
This means a more rested group, potentially saving injury concerns and at least limiting the risk for gashing plays the 49ers endured so frequently in the second half of games last year.
A Vastly Improved Front Seven
Combined with second-year first rounder, DeForest Buckner, this unit figures to be much, much better than it was in 2016.
This helps the defense’s fantasy football value in two different areas — net yards allowed and sacks. A year ago, the Niners gave up a whopping 4.8 yards per carry on defense, which was worst in the league. San Francisco was also tied for 19th with 33 sacks.
Expect both numbers to jump dramatically.
For starters, even though it’s only the preseason, the 49ers allowed a mere 31 rushing yards — just 2.2 yards per attempt — to the Kansas City Chiefs during the Niners’ 27-17 exhibition victory.
Considering how big a problem this was a year ago, this sort of effort is a good sign.
The same goes with the pass rush. Buckner, who was tied for the team lead in sacks last year (six), is capable of generating an interior rush. The same goes for Thomas, who received an 88.2 game grade versus Kansas City, per Pro Football Focus.
San Francisco’s secondary is still a work in progress, and its Cover 3 scheme means it’s likely going to be “feast or famine” for the Niners pass defense.
The cornerback situation is fluid, and there aren’t a ton of proven starters there. At safety, Eric Reid and Jimmie Ward have injury concerns and aren’t exactly the ballhawking types of defensive backs one would like on their fantasy football unit.
In fact, the Niners ranked 23rd in interceptions last year (10), and not much has changed, personnel-wise. So don’t expect there to be enough turnovers to spark your defensive production on a regular basis.
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49ers Defensive Fantasy Football Value
A top-tier fantasy defense, the 49ers are not. You’d be infinitely wiser to use your first D/ST pick to grab another team when it’s time.
But as a plug-in option during your No. 1 D/ST’s bye week, you might want to consider San Francisco if the schedule is right.
In Week 6, the Niners visit the Washington Redskins, who will feature an offense minus their two best receivers from last year, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. Monitor how well Washington’s offense plays the first few weeks.
The Dallas Cowboys will be without running back Ezekiel Elliott in Week 7, so that’s a thought, barring changes.
And with some later games on San Francisco’s schedule where opposing offenses don’t appear to be top notch (Chicago Bears in Week 13, Houston Texans in Week 14 and Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 16), starting the Niners defense in a pinch isn’t a bad choice.
Especially if your No. 1 fantasy defense faces a tough matchup.
Don’t reach for the 49ers defense in your fantasy football draft this season. But don’t avoid them either.