Sleepers, Busts and Bets: The 2022 San Francisco 49ers


Jeremy Popielarz and Dan Fornek continue with the 2022 Sleepers, Busts and Bets series to preview all 32 NFL teams for the upcoming year. Next up: The San Francisco 49ers.


Jeremy and Dan will list their picks with confidence in “The Answers,” Then expand upon their picks with more details reason in “The Explanation.”

The Answers

Favorite Sleeper

Popielarz: Tyrion Davis-Price
Fornek: Brandon Aiyuk

Biggest Bust

Popielarz: Elijah Mitchell
Fornek: Deebo Samuel

Boldest Bet

Popielarz: Trey Lance Finishes Outside the Top 12
Fornek: Trey Lance Finishes as a Top-3 QB


The Explanation


Popielarz: Tyrion Davis-Price

Tyrion Davis-Price is the second running back taken in the third round in as many years by the 49ers. He is also very similar to last year’s third-round pick Trey Sermon, as both players are contact-initiating running backs who would love to run through defenders as opposed to going around. In Davis-Price’s final year at LSU, he produced 1,003 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. One of the best things 49ers fans can hear about Davis-Price is that he has never missed a game due to injury in his three years in college. This could be a path to success this season for him, as 49ers backs missing time to injury has become routine — just last year, the 49ers had no running back play in more than 12 games other than fullback Kyle Juszczyk (17).

Elijah Mitchell will likely open the season as the lead back in San Francisco. Kyle Shanahan has employed both workhorse and committee backfields in the past, so it’s hard to know exactly what to expect here. Last year, the lead back in each game averaged only a 60-70% snap share, in large part due to injuries. Davis-Price’s durability could come in handy there — if he stays healthy, there’s a route to a decent weekly snape share. If that happens and he can carve out some red-zone work due to his running style and size, he could offer consistent flex production.

Fornek: Brandon Aiyuk

Brandon Aiyuk 2022 San Francisco 49ers Sleepers, Busts and Bets

Most 49ers seem reasonably priced in fantasy drafts given how they performed during the 2021 season. However, Brandon Aiyuk is the one player who is arguably being drafted too late of the skill options. Early fantasy drafters are either very concerned with Trey Lance’s ability to throw the football or are ignoring Aiyuk’s strong finish after an underwhelming start to the 2021 season.

The rumors the second-year receiver was in Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse came to fruition during the first seven weeks of the regular season. During that stretch, Aiyuk was the WR96 in fantasy, averaging just 4.8 fantasy points per game. He only had one game with a snap share greater than 71% and was targeted just 16 times. However, he saw his role in the offense grow after Week 8 by recording at least an 88% snap share for the next 11 games.

Over the last 11 weeks of the regular season, Aiyuk caught 47 of 68 targets for 730 yards and four touchdowns. While part of the reason for the increased usage stemmed from Deebo Samuel’s increased role in the backfield, it is also important to note Aiyuk was productive enough to allow the team to use Deebo in more creative ways. Aiyuk averaged 13.2 fantasy points per game in the final 11 games of the regular season and finished as a WR2 in fantasy in that span (WR16).

Assuming Aiyuk can avoid the doghouse this offseason, he is poised to enter his third season as a full-time starter at wide receiver in an offense that has a quarterback that has a strong arm and can extend plays with his athleticism. Aiyuk is currently being drafted as the WR43 in NFC drafts during July, which is far too low given his explosive playmaking ability when he’s on the field.


Popielarz: Elijah Mitchell

Last season, Elijah Mitchell was thrust into a huge workload in Week 1 when Raheem Mostert went down only nine snaps into the season. In this first game he was impressive, producing his first 100-yard game and scored his first touchdown, en route to 16.4 PPR points. From there on he played in 10 more games (missing six due to injury) and produced four more 100-yard games en route to 963 yards and five touchdowns. Within this came six double-digit PPR weeks and four RB1 finishes. All of this production has created quite the buzz around him heading into 2022. However, I’m not convinced, especially, after the 49ers used a third-round pick on yet another running back. This time they drafted another physical-power back. For me, this seems like they want to get some “thunder” to pair with the “lighting” they already have. 

With the addition of Tyrion Davis-Price, I believe we see a slightly more even split in the backfield, especially in the red zone. On top of that, the team appears set to deploy dual-threat QB Trey Lance as the starter. At North Dakota State, Lance produced 1,100 rushing yards and scored 14 rushing touchdowns in his only full season as a starter. This is one of his best traits, so it’s likely Shanahan uses this a significant amount in 2022. The combination of Davis-Price and Lance means Mitchell lacks the ceiling many hope for in 2022 – making it seem more likely to me that he finishes as a low-end RB2 than anything else. 

Fornek: Deebo Samuel

Deebo Samuel 2022 San Francisco 49ers Sleepers, Busts and Bets

I want to preface this section by saying that I believe Deebo Samuel is one of the most dynamic players in the NFL with the ball in his hands. You don’t just fall into 18.25 yards per reception and 6.19 yards per carry unless you have exceptional football skills. However, some potential pitfalls make Samuel’s ADP (WR7) hard to support.

It was well-known at the start of the offseason that Samuel was unhappy with his role in 2021 and demanded a trade. While the trade hasn’t come to fruition (and it seems increasingly likely the 49ers will extend him), it is still very likely that his hybrid role in 2021 isn’t sustainable going forward. From Weeks 1 to 9, Samuel was primarily used as a wide receiver and was the WR4, averaging 20.7 fantasy points per week. His production was aided by Brandon Aiyuk’s lack of involvement in the offense and three weeks without George Kittle due to an injury. Once Aiyuk and Kittle were re-integrated into the offense (and Elijah Mitchell went down with an injury), Samuel was transitioned into a wide receiver and running back hybrid role. In Weeks 10-18, Deebo’s targets per game dropped from 10.1 to 5.0, but he was able to have great fantasy value thanks to 42.9 rushing yards per game and seven rushing touchdowns.

The 49ers have taken steps to ensure they won’t need to utilize Deebo Samuel as a running back again in 2022. Trey Lance will add a rushing dimension in the backfield as a runner and Elijah Mitchell, Jeff Wilson and Trey Sermon will all return to the backfield. The team also added Tyrion Davis-Price in the third round of the draft to add to their depth. These moves suggest Deebo will primarily be used as a wide receiver, which means he should be competing with a healthy George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk for targets with a quarterback who can escape the pocket.

I love Deebo Samuel as much as everybody, but it is hard to endorse him being selected in the second round of fantasy drafts after seeing how much his production was propped up in the rushing attack last season.



Popielarz: Trey Lance Finishes Outside the Top 12

Trey Lance is possibly the most polarizing quarterback in the NFL currently (see below), as he is a player with immense talent but has lacked the refinement of a typical NFL quarterback. When he entered the league as a top-five pick last season, many fans were clamoring to see him play right away. This seemed to never be in the cards for the 49ers, especially as he had only one full season of FCS play under his belt. That season, he was just about the entire Bisons’ offense, producing 3,886 scrimmage yards and accounting for 32 touchdowns. A significant amount of this production was on the ground, as he produced 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns with his legs – with a rushing style more like Josh Allen than Lamar Jackson. This dual-threat ability is what helped him get drafted so high. On the flip side, he lacked accuracy and consistency when throwing the ball. This carried over to the NFL, in his limited action we saw a significant number of missed throws. 

This season appears to be different, as the 49ers have made it clear that Lance is the starter moving forward – even with Jimmy Garoppolo on the roster. This raises the question: What is Lance’s likely fantasy outlook? As long as he’s starting, his floor is safer than many others due to his legs, but he needs a huge jump in the passing game to finish in the top 12. Last year, we saw Jalen Hurts finish as the QB9, in large part due to his legs and the red zone rushing, as he found the end zone 10 times. On the flip side, he was limited in the passing game, ultimately limiting his ceiling. This is exactly how I forecast the 49ers quarterback to be in 2022, especially as he is a far less accurate quarterback than Hurts, making it likely he struggles in the passing game even more. Now add in the 49ers having a more productive robust running back room and a Deebo Samuel, and it’s easy to see how his ceiling could be limited.

Fornek: Trey Lance Finishes as a Top-3 QB

The presence of Jimmy Garoppolo on the roster (he will almost certainly be traded) and the reports of struggling with arm fatigue (it doesn’t matter in July) have done enough to suppress Trey Lance’s ADP throughout July (QB12). However, once the season is close and he’s named the unquestioned starting quarterback for the 49ers, that should jump a bit.

We saw a mixed bag from Lance during his redshirt rookie season after the 49ers selected him with the third pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Lance made two starts during his one season and played over half of the snaps in a third. While he showed his limitations as a passer (57.7% completion), he still avoided costly mistakes (just two interceptions) and proved to be a weapon with his rushing ability. Lance averaged 18.7 fantasy points per game in his three weeks of major game action, which would have made him the QB13 for the season. However, he will head into his second year with an entire year of development under his belt plus an offseason to prepare as the team’s QB1. He will also have two of the best yards-after-catch receivers and a top tight end at his disposal. While he may continue to struggle with accuracy as he acclimates to the NFL, we have seen many bad passers post strong fantasy quarterback seasons over the years.

Lance has all the makings of a top-three fantasy quarterback in his first season. He has the arm strength to make all the NFL throws, receivers who can turn short completions into long plays, and the rushing ability and explosiveness to be a threat to score on the ground from anywhere on the field. Combine that with one of the best offensive minds in the NFL today and you have somebody who can easily become one of the three best quarterbacks for the 2022 season. 

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