Early Stat Projections for the San Francisco 49ers' Top Impact Players
With the 2014 NFL season beginning to wind its way ever closer, it’s time to take our first crack at projecting just how the San Francisco 49ers’ top impact players will perform as they attempt to reach Super Bowl XLIX.
For the purposes of this article, we’re focusing on key players on the offensive side of the ball. Obviously, the 49ers won’t go very far if their elite defense crumbles back down to Earth, but individual defensive stats are very difficult to project.
This is because a good offensive player will have plays designed to run towards them, while a good defensive player will have plays designed to run away from them. So, the better a receiver like Michael Crabtree is, the more plays will head in his direction, while the better a linebacker like Patrick Willis is, the more plays will attempt to take him out of the action.
So, let’s focus on what the 49ers have some control over and look at the top offensive skill-position players. We’re going to try to project them using a combination of comparing them to similar players through history and good old-fashioned guesswork.
2011: 15 games, 72 receptions, 874 yards, 4 touchdowns
2012: 16 games, 85 receptions, 1105 yards, 9 touchdowns
2013: 5 games, 19 receptions, 284 yards, 1 touchdown
Right off the bat, we see the issue with attempting to project the traditional fantasy stats. One injury, like the one Crabtree suffered in 2013, could see the entire projection business thrown down the tubes.
Let’s ignore the chances of injury, however. Crabtree’s Achilles tear isn’t the sign of an ongoing injury concern. It’s fully healed and shouldn’t impact Crabtree’s development going forward.
It was, however, impacting his play at the end of last season. Even prorated out to a full 16-game schedule, Crabtree would have only had 60 receptions for slightly more than 900 yards, a significant decrease in his usage total. We can assume that a large part of that was Crabtree playing himself back into shape after missing the first half of his season with an injury.
There have been 28 players with similar age 26 stats, compared to Crabtree’s projected totals from last year. Of those, we can cross off Andre Johnson’s 2007 season as a good comparison, as he missed a good portion of that season with a knee injury.
Still, the 25 names have some promising comparisons there, including three Hall of Famers in Raymond Berry, Fred Biletnikoff and Lynn Swann. San Francisco fans will also note the presence of Vernon Davis and Gordie Soltau on the list. It’s a group that bodes well for Crabtree’s natural progression.
It also should be noted, however, that receivers tend to peak in their mid-20s, so it’s possible the combination of injury and age could bring Crabtree down a rung or two on pure athleticism.
That being said, Crabtree’s had a fairly consistent pattern of improvement over the course of his career. I don’t think he’ll quite reach his 2012 numbers, thanks to sharing the receiving duties with Anquan Boldin rather than Mario Manningham, but he should put up a return to the top 30 in terms of pure receiving yardage.
Low prediction: 70 receptions, 900 yards, 4 touchdowns
Medium prediction: 75 receptions, 950 yards, 5 touchdowns
High prediction: 80 receptions, 1,000 yards, 7 touchdowns
2011 (in Baltimore): 14 games, 57 receptions, 887 yards, 3 touchdowns
2012 (in Baltimore): 15 games, 65 receptions, 921 yards, 4 touchdowns
2013: 16 games, 85 receptions, 1,179 yards, 7 touchdowns
With Crabtree on the shelf for the majority of the regular season, Anquan Boldin had to step up and be the 49ers’ top receiving target. The 33-year-old responded with arguably the best season of his NFL career, considering the circumstances.
Because his game was never predicated too much on speed, Boldin’s managed to remain a receiving threat even when other receivers his age began declining.
Three receivers had similar age-33 seasons to Boldin: Terrell Owens with the 2006 Dallas Cowboys, Marvin Harrison with the 2005 Indianapolis Colts and Keenan McCardell with the 2003 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Owens and Harrison are good players to be compared to, as both of them earned First-Team All-Pro in their next seasons after trumping 1,300 receiving yards. McCardell’s situation is less applicable; he held out the next season and was traded to San Diego midway through the 2004 season. He never again trumped 1,000 receiving yards.
Still, two out of three comparisons improving their numbers from age 33 to age 34 isn’t bad at all. Receivers don’t decline as rapidly as running backs do, anyway. It’s not at all unreasonable to assume Boldin will still be an effective receiving threat even at age 34.
The hardest part about predicting Boldin’s numbers is trying to figure out how the 49ers will use him. His target numbers in San Francisco were much higher than they were in Baltimore. Colin Kaepernick threw to Boldin 129 times last season, while Joe Flacco averaged only 109 passes his way over the previous two seasons.
I do believe the number of targets will go down with Crabtree back in the lineup, so that’s reflected in my probable projection—his numbers falling back to how they were in Baltimore.
On the other hand, if the Kaepernick continues to look for Boldin due to the relationship they had in 2013, I could see his number of receptions staying high. I just don’t expect him to top 1,000 yards again, if everyone else stays healthy.
Low prediction: 60 receptions, 850 yards, 5 touchdowns
Medium prediction: 65 receptions, 900 yards, 5 touchdowns
High prediction: 85 receptions, 900 yards, 5 touchdowns
2011: 16 games, 67 receptions, 792 yards, 6 touchdowns
2012: 16 games, 41 receptions, 548 yards, 5 touchdowns
2013: 15 games, 52 receptions, 850 yards, 13 touchdowns
No matter what the situation has been on offense, Vernon Davis has been there, consistently contributing to the passing game. When Colin Kaepernick became comfortable with Davis in the 2012 playoffs, the connection was a very profitable one.
With the injury to Crabtree, Davis stepped up as the second option last season, putting up his biggest numbers in years. He’s a great deep threat and solid safety valve for a still-developing quarterback like Kaepernick and is a crucial piece to the continuing development of the offense.
Even ignoring his tenacity when blocking, Davis adds significant value to the roster. The list of receivers who could put up numbers similar to his at age 29 is pretty slim, with only 13 comparable players popping up. Two of them are Hall of Famers—Andre Reed and Bobby Mitchell.
Davis also put up better red-zone numbers than any of those players; his 13 touchdowns leads the field by a substantial margin.
Davis’ numbers will likely go down for two reasons. First of all, a fully healthy Crabtree, as well as a potential first-round wide receiver, will take some targets away from him.
Secondly, Davis turned 30 years old in January, so there’s a tiny bit of concern that age might start to play a factor. He’s shown no signs of slowing down yet, but when you hit your 30s in the NFL, you have to start at least considering the possibility.
Even in the worst-case scenario, however, I’m confident Davis will beat his 2012 numbers, which were dampened by the transition from Alex Smith to Kaepernick.
Low prediction: 45 receptions, 650 yards, 7 touchdowns
Medium prediction: 50 receptions, 750 yards, 7 touchdowns
High prediction: 60 receptions, 800 yards, 7 touchdowns
2011: 3 games, 3-of-5, 35 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs
2012: 13 games, 136-of-218, 1,814 yards, 10 TDs, 3 INTs
2013: 16 games, 243-of-416, 3,197 yards, 21 TDs, 8 INTs
The common narrative last season was that Kaepernick struggled, compared to his performance in the 2012 season. Some people called him a one-read-and-then-run player who was underwhelming in his first full season as a starter.
That ignores the fact that his main weapon was out for most of the season, as well as the fact that Kaepernick’s only 26 years old—there’s still a lot of time to grow and develop in his game. Even with his “struggles”, he ended up in the top 10 in passer rating, yards per attempt and interception percentage. He also had four game-winning drives and three comebacks, if you prefer more esoteric statistics.
The Field Gulls blog, of all places, recently put together a good article on Kaepernick’s success against every team not named the Seattle Seahawks. It pointed out that, without the games against the Seahawks, Kaepernick’s numbers are in Aaron Rodgers/Tom Brady/Peyton Manning territory. That’s how good Kaepernick’s been in his young career.
Of course, you can’t just ignore the Seattle games, but even with them, Kaepernick’s been a top-10 quarterback in the NFL. Football Outsiders had him seventh in the league in DVOA and eighth in DYAR—and he’s only started one full season, without the benefit of his top receiver.
Of course, we’re working on a year and a half worth of data alone. Perhaps Kaepernick did really take steps back last season—it seems unlikely, but it’s not like Kaepernick has years of experience in his corner. With that in mind, I put together a low prediction that worked in some regression.
That being said, I think, in this case, the ceiling is much more likely than the floor. It’s quite possible Kaepernick, at age 27, improves his reads and takes that next step into elite quarterback company, hurdling over his Seahawks problems.
Low prediction: 56% completion percentage, 2,900 yards, 17 TDs, 11 INTs
Medium prediction: 58% completion percentage, 3,200 yards, 19 TDs, 10 INTs
High prediction: 60% completion percentage, 3,500 yards, 22 TDs, 8 INTs
2011: 16 games, 282 carries, 1,211 yards, 8 touchdowns
2012: 16 games, 258 carries, 1,214 yards, 8 touchdowns
2013: 16 games, 276 carries, 1,128 yards, 9 touchdowns
How much longer can the ageless Frank Gore keep contributing?
I took a full-length article look at that back in April. Basically, although Gore is turning 31 in May, there’s still a decent chance he could be a productive running back in 2014.
It might be a lot to ask of him to try to replicate the Walter Paytons or Tony Dorsetts of the world, but players like Willis McGahee and LaDainian Tomlinson have managed to contribute to successful teams even into their 30s.
The question is how many carries Gore will give up to his backups this season. Gore’s hovered around 55 percent of San Francisco’s carries since 2010. Last season, taking out Kaepernick’s scrambles, Gore actually received 66.8 percent of the team’s carries. The 49ers have relied heavily on Gore’s legs, and he continues to provide value. Year in and year out, he’s averaged more than 1,100 yards.
With Marcus Lattimore ready to debut, this is probably the year Gore sees his carries begin to diminish. I don’t think he’ll quite crack the 1,000-yard mark this season, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be a useful contributor on offense.
Low prediction: 195 carries, 800 yards, 5 touchdowns
Medium prediction: 215 carries, 900 yards, 6 touchdowns
High prediction: 240 carries, 1,000 yards, 7 touchdowns
Marcus Lattimore and Kendall Hunter
2011 (in South Carolina): 7 games, 163 carries, 818 yards, 10 touchdowns
2012 (in South Carolina): 9 games, 143 carries, 662 yards, 11 touchdowns
2013: Did not play due to knee injury
2011: 16 games, 112 carries, 473 yards, 2 touchdowns
2012: 11 games, 72 carries, 371 yards, 2 touchdowns
2013: 16 games, 78 carries, 358 yards, 3 touchdowns
I’m grouping Lattimore and Hunter together because they look primed to battle for the backup running back position.
In the red corner, we have Hunter, the primary backup over the past three seasons. Despite the addition of second-round pick LaMichael James in 2012, Hunter’s been the back of choice whenever Gore’s needed a break. On the last year of his rookie contract, Hunter looks to continue to fight off all comers for a share of Gore’s declining carries.
In the gold corner, we have Lattimore, who spent the entire 2013 season on the injured list. Lattimore was considered a steal in the fourth round of last year’s draft, with Charley Casserly calling him the best back available. If he’s fully recovered from his knee injury, he’s ready to take over the starting role for years to come.
This could well be Hunter’s last year on the team; Lattimore is primed to take over the starting carries from 2015 forward. That’s next year, though; this year, it should be an exciting battle in training camp and preseason to see which one stakes a claim to most of the work.
You have to side with Lattimore, I think. He’s got more raw talent than Hunter does, and if his knee is back to full strength, the 49ers will want to see what he can do. That doesn’t mean Hunter won’t have a role in the offense—in fact, I think it will stay about the same, thanks to Gore’s carries decreasing.
On the whole, though, I expect Lattimore to get the second-most carries this season.
Low prediction: 110 carries, 500 yards, 3 touchdowns
Medium prediction: 120 carries, 550 yards, 4 touchdowns
High prediction: 135 carries, 600 yards, 4 touchdowns
Low prediction: 50 carries, 250 yards, 3 touchdowns
Medium prediction: 60 carries, 275 yards, 3 touchdowns
High prediction: 70 carries, 300 yards, 4 touchdowns