It’s not very often that you use the words fantasy football sleeper, when describing a former number one overall NFL draft pick. Prior to last season, the word which might have been associated with San Francisco 49ers QB Alex Smith, might have been bust. While Smith did post a career season in several respects last year under the tutelage of head coach Jim Harbaugh, Smith was not a viable fantasy football option. That could change in 2012.
In a truncated offseason last year which was limited by the owner’s lockout, Smith was signed to a one-year deal once the free agency period eventually opened. Smith would now be playing for yet another head coach and under yet a completely different offensive scheme, something which has plagued him during his career. Harbaugh made the best of what could be considered a bad situation and focus on playing tenacious defense and limited the offense to a power running game and short to intermediate passes. Smith responded by keeping the turnovers to a minimum, posting the NFL’s lowest interception total by any 16-game starter.
Smith starts the 2012 season with a year of Harbaugh’s offense under his belt. Harbaugh must have been impressed with what he saw this season from Alex Smith, as the team rewarded him with a three-year $24 million dollar contract which was finalized in March of this year. Instead of changing signal callers after one season, the 49ers decided to surround Smith with more weapons.
The Niners enjoyed unexpected success last season but the vertical passing attack in the San Francisco offense was severely lacking. Of the top 20 ranked passers at the end of the season, only three other quarterbacks had a lower yardage per attempt average. Matt Hasselbeck, Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton were lower than Smith’s 7.07 ypa average. That number should increase this season with the receiver additions the Niners have made. It is interesting to note however that Smith, Dalton and Flacco all advanced to the playoffs, all quarterbacking teams built around the same central theme of solid defense and a good running game. Hasselbeck, Dalton and Flacco all threw for more total yards than Smith.
Smith finished the season with as the ninth ranked passer in the league, posting a career high 90.7 rating, coming in just ahead of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. Every quarterback in the top ten had a higher ypa average. The aspect of Smith’s game which should change this season, and what really counts in fantasy football, is touchdowns. The Utah product only threw for 17 scores last season and 11 of those came in five multi-score games. His season high total came against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but nearly every team beat them like a rented mule last season.San Francisco finished the regular season ranked 29th overall in passing offense, averaging an anemic 183 yards per game.
This offseason the Niners added veteran WR Randy Moss and free agent WR Mario Manningham. The team returns Michael Crabtree, a player yet to realize his potential. They drafted Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins in the 2012 NFL Draft and third-year receiver Kyle Williams has been drawing some rave reviews in during offseason workouts this spring and summer. The 49ers have significantly upgraded the receiver position.
Say what you will about WR Randy Moss- he’s moody, doesn’t run precise routes, takes plays off, but according to everything coming out of the Niners offseason workouts, he seems to be focused. For now. Players seem to be buying into Jim Harbaugh’s plan and perhaps Moss is no different. Perhaps the year off made him realize that he would like to win the elusive championship ring that he doesn’t have to go along with his 153 touchdowns and nearly 15,000 receiving yards. Maybe, just maybe, he’s ready to give it one last push. Reports out of the Bay area suggest he hasn’t lost a step and still possess great speed. If Moss is focused, then the Niners offense takes on an entirely new dimension and Alex Smith’s production soars.
Of Smith’s 17 touchdown passes last season, six went to TE Vernon Davis. No wide receiver caught over four touchdowns for the Niners last season. In the last three seasons with the New York Giants, Mario Manningham has averaged 6 per season.
Hear me out on this scenario. Randy Moss catches eight scores. Manningham adds six. The addition of Moss and Manningham open up more of the middle for Vernon Davis and he finds the endzone ten times. Sprinkle in a few scores from other receivers and perhaps a couple scores from passes to the running back position, and you suddenly have an Alex Smith who has thrown for close to 30 touchdowns.
Think it can’t happen? Did you pass on Matthew Stafford last season because you didn’t think he’d stay healthy the entire season?I took a flier on Stafford in the 7th round of one of my leagues and was rewarded handsomely.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you abandon your entire draft order and roll with Alex Smith as your starting quarterback, not by a long shot. However, Smith finally has a coach which believes in him, that has provided more weapons around him to improve the passing game and I fully believe Harbaugh will open up the playbook this season after a complete offseason with his team.
Based on last season’s performance, Smith will likely be available in many fantasy drafts in the late rounds. I have employed a strategy in several drafts in past years of selecting three quarterbacks initially to some success. Many times in late rounds, you are drafting a kicker and speculative players which you’ll likely dump by week five and replace with by players off the waiver wire. Even if you are satisfied with the two quarterbacks you’ve already drafted, there could be a team in your league that has a starter go down early and if Smith is posting solid numbers, he could become very attractive in a trade.
Yes, it’s a risky move, and yes, Smith isn’t technically a ‘sleeper’ per sae, but I believe he has tremendous upside potential heading into the 2012 season. And what aspect of fantasy football isn’t risky?