Where does Colin Kaepernick rank with Michael Crabtree out?
When San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree suffered a torn Achilles tendon on May 21, fantasy players took notice. Not only had Crabtree blossomed into a legitimate No. 1 receiver, he was clearly the 49ers' only real receiving option once Colin Kaepernick took over as the starting quarterback. This injury now has Kaepernick's fantasy value in question, so let's analyze how much Crabtree meant to the 49ers' offense last season once Kaepernick was installed as the starter, and how other changes may shape the offense.
Last season, when Kaepernick was the starter, Crabtree amassed 41 catches for 595 yards and five touchdowns. He caught 67 percent of his targets, which was surpassed by only five wide receivers who had at least 30 receptions during that same time period (Randall Cobb, Eric Decker, Andre Johnson, Marques Colston and Dez Bryant). He was particularly productive out of the slot, gaining 278 yards when lining up in that role. His 41 grabs during that time period accounted for 59 percent of the catches made by 49ers wide receivers, with none of the other wideouts surpassing 13 catches. Obviously, Crabtree's level of production was significant and would be difficult to replace on most teams. This year's 49ers are not most teams.
Kaepernick enters the season as the unquestioned starter in San Francisco. This presents the obvious benefit of him having a full offseason of repetitions with the rest of the 49ers starters, which should result in greater familiarity with all of his weapons. Many speculate that it was this lack of familiarity with tight end Vernon Davis that led to Davis' virtual disappearance from box scores once Kaepernick was installed as the starter.
While speculative, the fact that Davis' reception rate per route run plummeted from 14 percent to below 9 percent surely indicates there is truth to that assumption. Furthermore, that the rate improved significantly to better than 16 percent during the playoffs, which followed a 49ers bye in the wild-card round, only promotes that idea. Because early reports out of training camp indicate Davis is continuing to be a focal point of the offense -- with the coaching staff frequently lining Davis up as a wide receiver -- it's safe to assume that the 2013 version of Davis will be much closer to 2012 playoff form than that of the regular season.
Davis won't be the only receiving option. Anquan Boldin was acquired via trade this offseason, and he couldn't be a better fit to replace Crabtree, who is 25. Although Boldin is 32, his size (6-foot-1, 220 pounds) is almost identical to Crabtree's (6-1, 215 pounds) and once the Ravens began to utilize Boldin in the slot last season, he dominated. During the regular season, Boldin had 65 catches for 921 yards and four touchdowns, including 29 receptions (45 percent) from the slot. During the playoffs, the Ravens increased Boldin's usage in the slot. He grew from running a little more than 60 percent of his routes from the slot during the regular season to more than 67 percent for the playoffs.
The result was that Boldin's yardage totals grew by more than 50 percent per game, from 61 yards per game in the regular season to 95 in the playoffs. Obviously, he performs well in that role and should ably fill the void left by Crabtree.
That brings us to Kaepernick, himself.
Let's start with a trivia question: Can you name all of the quarterbacks in the NFL who surpassed Kaepernick's 8.3 yards per pass attempt last season? It's a trick question, because the inexperienced Kaepernick led the league. Yes, better than Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Better than everyone. Additionally, his 3-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio placed him fifth in the league, behind the aforementioned trio and Robert Griffin III. It's because of those two metrics that it's safe to predict a slight rise in the number of attempts Kaepernick gets per game as he gains more experience, so let's try to quantify that.
During his weeks as a starter in the regular season, Kaepernick averaged a solid 31 passes per game. For perspective, nine quarterbacks averaged more than 36 passes per game last season: Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees, Tony Romo, Brady, Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan, Nick Foles, Carson Palmer and Peyton Manning. You'll notice that there isn't a good scrambler in that bunch, so the inexperienced Kaepernick was being trusted quite a bit already. But I think there's room for significant growth in his passing numbers.
Last season, the 49ers had 173 offensive possessions, which was eight fewer than the league average. I think it is reasonable to expect them to return to average, as in 2011, when they had 184 possessions versus the league average of 183.8. Since 49ers offensive drives averaged 33 yards last season, an increase in possessions to the 2012 league average would net 264 more total yards. And because 57 percent of their yardage came through the air last season, that's a gain of 150 passing yards. At 8.32 yards per attempt, that's worth a little more than one attempt per game, which accounts for the first 4 percent of the increase.
The rest of the increase I anticipate in passing attempts comes from the team putting even more of the offense on his shoulders, because he's shown how dynamic he can be in the passing game, reaching at least 233 yards in each of his final five games, including the postseason. With a growth of four or five attempts per game, Kaepernick's passing statistics should increase in the neighborhood of 15 percent, which just screams fantasy goodness.
The other part of Kaepernick's dynamic game is his rushing capability. While many view Kaepernick's fantasy usefulness as reliant on the run, he scored only three fewer fantasy points as the starter than Peyton Manning. During those weeks, Kaepernick averaged 34 rushing yards per game and managed two rushing touchdowns. Those numbers prorate to 544 rushing yards and fewer than five touchdowns for a complete season, which I find eminently achievable in 2013, so it's not as if Kaepernick's rushing capabilities skewed his fantasy production last season. That means that last season should form the baseline for what to expect from Kaepernick.
When you take into account that he ranked as the ninth-best quarterback as a starter last season; that Davis is poised to produce at a higher level than he did last season with Kaepernick as a starter; that Boldin should fill any void left by Crabtree; and that Kaepernick likely will see an increase in passes attempted, it's safe to project Kaepernick finishing as a top-seven fantasy quarterback this season. I have no hesitation with drafting Kaepernick as your lone quarterback in 10-team leagues, or as your primary quarterback in larger leagues.