The Chip Kelly Scheme in the Bay

By Josh Johnson and Jamie Will, DFW Senior Writers and Co-Owners and Alex Kirby (Football Editor at

Chip Kelly’s Matchup Attack
The Chip Kelly express is headed to its new home in San Francisco, where he’ll get a chance to revive another franchise that had a very disappointing 2015. Personally, I have no idea how well he’ll do, because there are so many factors off the football field that play a part in how it all shakes out. Instead, what I want to talk about today is how Chip determines who will get the most snaps on Sunday. Chip is all about putting his best five guys out there on the field, but here’s where it gets tricky, we’re not just talking in terms of pure talent here. Kelly has to think about a lot of things obviously when he’s putting together personnel groupings for his upcoming opponent, but there are some big questions to be answered. How will the defense likely respond to this group of five skill players on the field? Which personnel grouping makes me seem the most unpredictable in this situation? In this post we’ll talk about three specific examples of the kinds of match-up decisions that influence how Chip determines who to put on the field. Think about how the defense will respond to who you put on the field, and compare it with the alternatives.

Chip’s Option 1: Slot Receiver vs Second Tight End (11 Personnel vs 12 Personnel)
Let’s start by thinking of the personnel match-ups involved here, and how the defense will respond. We’ll be talking generally, since obviously each opponent has its own unique set of challenges. The two outside receivers, the first tight end, and the tailback are a given no matter what, but now it’s time to think on the margins. It may seem counter-intuitive, but when Kelly has a difficult decision about who to put in at this spot, that’s a very good thing. In Philadelphia for example, a lot of times it came down to a decision between Zach Ertz and Jordan Matthews as a tight end is obviously a much better blocker than Matthews, but he also has decent hands for a guy his size. So at the end of the day it really depends on how the defense is playing you, and what you’re trying to accomplish. Does the defense bring on an extra linebacker when you bring on Ertz? Or are there some occasions where they go to a nickel personnel package, where you can have some extra leverage in the run game? What about Matthews? There probably aren’t a lot of situations where a team will leave a base 4-3/3-4 defense out there on the field with an outside linebacker to run with him the whole drive, but then, what about the extra pass defender who comes with the nickel package? How does Matthews match up against him in both the pass and the run game? Finally, it’s time to look at both options side by side and figure out which personnel group allows you to remain as unpredictable as possible before the snap.

Running Back vs Slot Receiver (21 Personnel vs 11 Personnel)
Here’s another example of how to think about matchups in the pass game that still allow for a run threat. Now you have to think about having for example Darren Sproles and Ryan Matthews in the game vs having that third receiver (Jordan Matthews) on the field. Obviously having a two-back set gives you a lot more options in the run game, and it also produces a similar issue for defenses just like Philly’s two tight end package. Do they leave their base personnel on the field against a “regular” personnel group? Kelly’s teams are notorious for taking advantage of high-percentage passes into the flat, and repeating it until the defense figures out a way to stop it. Most backs in this scheme are also regularly split out wide as a receiver as well, not only because of their receiving ability, but also as a way to force the defense to show its hand. Then again, there are plenty of creative ways for Chip to run the football out of two-back formations, and this gives him the ability to do both. The question becomes, just like the first example, what kind of opponent are you facing and which offensive player gives you the best individual matchup at that position?

Fullback vs Third Tight End (22 Personnel vs 13 Personnel)
Finally, we get to a more theoretical situation that applies more to Chip’s new team than his old one. With a fullback like Bruce Miller on the roster for San Francisco, Kelly has some interesting options for short yardage and goal line situations that he didn’t have for the most part in Philadelphia. The Eagles had a dangerous habit of coming onto the field with three tight ends and then lining up in more conventional spread formations, with the defense caught completely off guard. Then again they’d also line up in their fair share of traditional goal line and power running sets, but putting these kinds of things on film made them a difficult short yardage team to prepare for, because even if the defense saw them running the “jumbo” personnel onto the field, it still didn’t necessarily mean they were just going to “play in a phone booth” so to speak and bash their head against a loaded front. Having a third tight end and a receiver on the field (13 personnel) gives you all kinds of passing options for your play action, whereas putting a more traditional fullback like Bruce Miller on the field in these situations may limit what you can do, but give you better production as a lead blocker in the run game, and may also open up some old school run schemes where the fullback gets to carry the ball. Traditionally Chip has preferred guys who do multiple things well over guys who do things great (as have a lot of other teams) but if there is a role for an old school guy like Bruce Miller at the fullback position, Kelly will find it.

There is so much variation week-to-week in the NFL that it would be impossible to write a complete and comprehensive guide to this sort of thing without leaving something out, but I hope I’ve given you some things to think about when watching the game and possibly making your own personnel decisions in your fantasy league. So, when your friends ask you for fantasy advice, and who they should start on Sunday, there’s one tried-and-true method to look smart. Just answer, “It depends.” -Alex Kirby

QUARTERBACKS by Joshua Johnson


Will Driskel make these two laugh or cry?

The good, the bad and the ugly duckling is how we would like to describe Niner QB depth chart. This is a very awkward situation and many tissues as well as drinks may be needed to sort all the hiccups they have etched in their respective resumes.

The Good: Colin Kaepernick
John “Cougar” Mellencamp once sang “…come on baby, make it hurt so good.” Although things appear broken, Kaepernick still has a rare opportunity at vindication with an organization that basically served him divorce papers. We asked author Alex Kirby (who quilled a book all about the Chip Kelly offense entitled “Speed Kills”) his thoughts on how complex the Kelly playbook is compared to others Kaepernick has used. Kirby responded, “Probably a lot less. He’ll have a lot fewer checks to make at the line than the average NFL QB, since Chip, for better or worse, wants to make a lot of those decisions, and he’d rather them run a decent play at high speed than run the perfect play too slow.” We really see Kaepernick being successful in this scheme. That is of course pending ties can be mended within the organization. Because “sometimes love doesn’t feel like it should.”

The Bad: Blaine Gabbert
Sure, we saw it too. Those few glowing moments that Gabbert squeezed out in 2015. This is where we remind you that he has always struggled to absorb the nuances of the pro game. Throughout his career the schemes he has been in have engulfed his sense of being while exposing his weaknesses. He is certainly the most mature of the three slingers but yet another nuanced scheme lays before him like an advance calculus mid-term. The major thing that scares us about Gabbert is that when his team is bad, he is somehow even worse. Far too often the game has been bigger than him. When things breakdown he crumbles like a week old cookie that was not sweet enough to begin with. As Alex pointed out the Kelly scheme is not complex. Yet, it would be new to Gabbert. He has shown an ability to learn but that is usually a season or season and a half long process and Kelly is not a patience boss.

The Ugly Duckling: Jeff Driskel
First off the duckling terminology has nothing to Kelly’s former employer the University of Oregon Ducks. It is simple an affectionate way of viewing a rookie QB who has a graceful potential. Driskel backed his way into the 2016 NFL draft with a surprisingly gritty and productive senior year at LA Tech. This came on the heels of colossally flailing with the Florida Gators. He was a top-recruit out of high school and many thought he would transition seamlessly. He did not and we believe this is why you should believe in him. He felt pain and hopelessness at a very influential time in his life and he came out of it a stronger man. His prospects for seeing the field in 2016 are thin. Yet, his skill set is deceptive and he opportunistic tendencies are translatable in the Kelly scheme. Driskel is a faster straight line runner than either Kaepernick or Gabbert. Kelly will love that aspect to Driskel game as his system thrives on QB mobility. Driskel can make almost any throw that is asked of him and he can even throw with touch on the run. A few of his throws will leave exclaiming “what the hell was that” but he makes quick decision and he is never afraid to go for the big play.


Hyde is ready to glide!

Hyde is ready to glide!

Is there a Dr. Jekyll to go with Mr. Hyde? Carlos Hyde showed a ton of promise early in 2015 despite being on a disintegrating team with a horrendous passing game. But, it all came to a screeching halt due to a stress fracture in his foot that required season-ending surgery, leading to Hyde missing the final nine games in essentially a lost season for the team as a whole. Journeyman (to be generous…) Shaun Draughn carried the load in the home stretch and produced better than expected, especially in the passing game where he accumulated 27 catches despite only starting six games. The 49ers also have holdover Mike Davis, who wholly underwhelmed as the first man up after Hyde’s injury, and 6th round pick Kelvin Taylor out of Florida (the great “Fragile Fred’s” son.) Behind Hyde, this group seems like a giant cluster*, but let’s take a look at how it should shake out.

The Lead/Bellcow/#1/any other name for the main back: Carlos Hyde
Hyde is the unquestioned lead in this backfield and his arrow is firmly pointing up based on all reports, but that by no means should read as “he’s a sure thing.” Hyde is legitimately talented and has burst along with good size. Chip Kelly is on record as saying that Hyde is impressive and “a stud” (Source: Also, Hyde has cut down his weight a bit in anticipation of the new up-tempo offense, and for those who think this is not a big thing, I urge you to take a look at the track record of running backs that shed some weight heading into a season. It is remarkably good and the most recent example is LeVeon Bell two years ago, and if you don’t recall Bell was dancing through and around defenses while still maintaining plenty of size and power. The slim-down is absolutely a positive for Hyde’s outlook. All positivity aside, there are two big questions that Hyde needs to answer in 2016. First, he needs to prove he can stay healthy in general, but in particularly now that he will be the workhorse in an offense trying to go 200 mph. Hyde will likely be given the ball until the proverbial wheels come off, but the problem is that said wheels have failed him in his first two years. Fantasy owners need to take a massive leap of faith on this one because health is the biggest factor in Hyde either being a top 5 back or a colossal bust. The second key question related to Hyde is his fit in the offense. Hyde has traditionally played as a power-scheme back and now he will be asked to do one-cut, zone runs as well as outside sweeps and counters. Chip Kelly has scoffed at this notion and believes Hyde is a great fit, and I would concur that he does appear to have the necessary lateral agility and burst to succeed in this system. But (and this is a HUGE but…), many of these things were said prior to last season’s dramatic failure with DeMarco Murray in Philadelphia. One would think Chip Kelly learned a lesson from last year, but it is hard to know until we see it for real. The 49ers moved up in the draft to pick mauling guard Josh Garnett, so hopefully he is taking the interior O-line much more seriously. That would be a big positive for Hyde and the crew, but there is still so much uncertainty here as to how the running game will look and we won’t know for sure until they take the field in camp.

And now on to the rest in the order that I predict (Warning: It’s not pretty…)

The Jack of Several Trades but Clearly the Master of None: Shaun Draughn
Shaun Draughn recorded over 100 touches in 2015, which is undoubtedly both a surprise and an indication of how low the season was for San Fran. Draughn demonstrated the ability to produce moderately as a receiver during his run as the starter, recording four games with 4+ catches in his six starts, with a high of 8. His yardage output both through the air and on the ground was pretty abysmal (3.5 avg on the ground, a slightly better 6.5 through the air) but the key is that he showed he could be relied on in a traditional 3rd down back role. It is possible that Hyde will get the opportunity to play all three downs, but the past has shown that Chip Kelly likes to rotate backs and to employ reliable receivers out of the backfield. I could easily see Draughn gaining Kelly’s trust and carving out some touches on third downs.

Hopefully not Fragile like Fred: Kelvin Taylor
The 49ers selected Taylor in the 6th round and the word among the analysts mostly centered on “Fred Taylor’s son” more than anything particular that they expected Taylor to bring to the NFL. It is easy to see why because Taylor was solid in college at Florida, but did not demonstrate any particular traits that may foretell a future role or success in San Fran. For example, he caught merely 32 passes in three years at Florida, he showed sup-par athleticism across the board at the combine, and only averaged an even 4.00 YPC in his year as the lead back in 2015. Taylor is lucky in that he’s in this underwhelming, jumbled mix of backs behind Hyde, so he certainly has the opportunity to demonstrate his wealth this summer. But, to do so, he would have to show some ability that he hasn’t really shown before. It’s not impossible, sure, but I would chalk it up as improbable. He could very well make the team as a situational backup, but he is also a candidate for the practice squad.

Is it possible to be a “Poor Man’s Andre Williams?”: Mike Davis
After coming out as a 4th round pick in the 2015 draft, Mike Davis appeared to have some upside as a potential backup to Carlos Hyde due to his strong collegiate production both on the ground and through the air. Davis did little to separate himself from the pack in the preseason, but still ended up in line to be the primary backup to Carlos Hyde on early downs at the start of the season. He went on to produce a putrid 29 total yards on 17 touches through his first three appearances (Weeks 2,3, and 6) before he was mercifully placed on the I.R./Designated to Return list with a hand injury. Davis showed next to nothing in every opportunity he received and it’s hard to see him carving out a role going forward, if he’s even able to survive final cuts. Davis, like Taylor, needs to show something he hasn’t previously shown to impress Chip Kelly if he wants to stick around and contribute.

WIDE RECEIVERS by Joshua Johnson

Call it a hodgepodge or a cornucopia but the plethora of WRs in camp are all lacking something. Certain ones hold more perceived value yet who amongst you will dare to build your dynasty castle upon the sand of a San Francisco beach. You may dispute the  X, Z and slot designations we have so boldly given these WRs. You also must remember Kelly is a non-conformist. Using bigger players like Jordan Matthews in the slot is what he did so eloquently with the Eagles. He also employed some shiftier beings at the Z to best display some of there more flamboyant talents. 

X: Torrey Smith
This is the one true veteran in San Francisco. While he has had his moments throughout his career Smith is not a WR1. His speed is nice but Kelly will have to create space for Smith to jolt through the secondaries. It seems like Smith should be the top target getters but his unwillingness to block might be cause for a snap count scale back.

X: Aaron Burbridge 

Burbridge is a fighter!

Burbridge (16) is a fighter!

Burbridge seems to be elite at nothing but he has possession WR written all over him. As boring as it may sound he is a dependable target. He uses wit and savvy to gain throwing windows for his QB. His skills may take a year or two to sprout but he reminds us a whole lot of guys Rueben Randle and Dwayne Bowe.

X: Devon Cajuste
If Cajuste was on a TE starved team we would love see him get that kind of opportunity. As for now his physicality and sure hands will make it very hard for him to get cut. His 6-foot-4 frame as an outside WR should be a source of red zone enticement. He will certainly be limited as a rookie but he could be Jeff Janis in two years time. Cajuste murdered the 3-cone drill at the combine with a 6.49 time. That skill should help him win in crossing routes and on post patterns. Whomever loses the QB job might develop a solid rapport with Cajuste on the weekly scout team.

X: Jerome Simpson
We do not have a solid answer about how to get rid of that vomit smell. The 30-year old veteran has 150 receptions over 62 career games. Simpson converted a horrendous 5-of-19 in limited action for San Francisco. #CampBody

X: DeAndrew White
White will have to make the roster as a return specialist. His main competition is Ellington for that role but he has been mediocre at best when healthy. White seems like a camp body and with one more season left of practice squad eligibility his fate might already be written. White did suffer from many injuries in college career but his 4.44 speed remains. If White makes the team he could have his own wrinkle in the offense. We don’t see Ellington and White both breaking with the team.

X: Bryce Treggs
We had no idea who he was either. He was a Jared Goff WR at Cal and a very boring at that. Well he was until 2015 when his yards per catch doubled to an astonishing 21.2 yards. He recorded a sub 4.40 40 at his Pro Day which is why we believe the Niners brought him in. Standing 6-foot and weighing just 190 pounds Treggs will have to prove that he is more than just a deep threat to survive through roster cuts.

Z: Quinton Patton
There was a lot of buzz surrounding Patton as a rookie but nothing seems to work in his favor. The new regime could be his chance to prove his worthiness. He received four starts in 2015 and he finished the season with 30 receptions on 57 targets for a solid 13.1 YPC. If your arm hair got a little tingly with potential over his stats we understand but we also know Kelly can be quite cantankerous. Although Patton is about the same size as Josh Huff who Kelly loved at Oregon and in Philadelphia.

Z: Bruce Ellington
As a slot ninja Ellington was expected to flash some things but so far his career has been luke warm with less than a handful of bright spots. At the very least he can return kicks. However, his 5’9″ 180 pound frame is something Kelly had better luck with in the PAC12.

Z: Dres Anderson
Anderson spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve and rehabbing a knee injury he suffered in October 2014. He is the son of former Rams star WR Flipper Anderson. Post-knee injury he recorded a 4.54 40-time and 6.83 3-cone. He is a bit of a string-bean like his father but he explodes well in space. He would be an ideal motion man as he has yet show he can consistently beat press coverage. He can be slippery on bubble screens and he definitely is a quicker reactor when daylight can be gained. Kelly could get real creative with a player like Anderson.

S: DeAndre Smelter 

Smelter can't wait to wrap his long hands around the new scheme.

Smelter can’t wait to wrap his long hands around the new scheme.

Hard-nosed blocking slot WRs are hard to find. Even though Smelter wasn’t drafted by Kelly he should fall into favor once he get his pads on. He pasted defenders in college in a run heavy scheme. Yet, he is also a very solid pass catcher who possesses freaky long 11-inch hands. No desire will be fleeting when you get Smelter on the field. He also suffered a knee injury that forced him to spend 2015 on IR. It was very probable he would during the second half of the season but thankfully the Niners were extra cautious. The big question is can Smelter truly give Jordan Matthews did in the Kelly scheme. On that front we can make any promises but if he is guaranteed 100 targets we are bullishly drafting him all day long. His talent was subdued by the Georgia Tech triple option/flexbone scheme. Yet on just 56 college receptions he chalked up over 1,000 yards receiving.

Wild S: Eric Rogers
After 87 receptions for 1,448 yards and 10 TDs for the Calgary Stampeders of CFL the Niners were too smitten. Now is the time for you to spew forth your Duron Carter metaphoric jargon. Rogers is a legitimate 6-foot-3 220 pounds. He will battle tooth and nail to make this team. Rogers and Smelter could be the true future of the Niners. Hopefully Kelly realized that physical play and not just speed will enable them to get open.

S: DiAndre Campbell
The Niners have yet another UDFA lottery ticket in Campbell. With just 45 college receptions (in 52 games) he lacks significant production. He did test well with a 4.53 40, 16 bench reps and a 37.5 inch vertical. Campbell spent 2015 on the practice squad and could likely find himself there again. He will lacks the raw top speed Kelly loves and we do not see him having any kind of Fantasy or Dynasty value at this time.

TIGHT ENDS by Jamie Will

A serving of Upside with a side of “Uncertainty.” Chip Kelly loves to utilize the tight ends in the passing game.  He particularly likes to exploit matchups with his bigger players whenever possible, and it is expected that he will continue that trend in San Francisco. However, receiving isn’t everything and Kelly requires blocking ability from the TE position and playing time is often dictated by blocking prowess (see: Ertz, Zach from 2014-first half of 2015). With all of that said, who will be the guy(s) to emerge from a crowded TE group?

Option 1: Vance McDonald doing his best Zach Ertz impression
Vance McDonald is the leader in the clubhouse to be the primary TE for San Francisco in 2016 and the primary word on him thus far is “inconsistency.”  McDonald has flashed great receiving ability at times over the last two seasons, but also has maddening troubles with drops and the jury is still out on his overall blocking ability.  He has prototypical size and athleticism for the position and an increase in consistency would instantly put McDonald on many sleeper lists, if he isn’t already.  But, he needs to demonstrate improved consistency and effective blocking early in camp, or he could end up in a frustrating rotation or, at absolute worst, riding the pine or not making the cut.

Option 2: Garrett Celek filling in where his older brother left off


Celek has a new deal and a new admirer.

The most frustrating fantasy aspect of Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia tenure, with respect to the tight end, was the prevalent use of Brent Celek at the expense of Zach Ertz.  Celek rated highly as a blocker throughout Kelly’s tenure, and that bought him more playing time than the uber-talented Ertz in spite of Celek’s glaring lack of explosiveness in the passing game.  Fast-forward to present day, and it appears as if another Celek will be in line to hog running-down snaps for a Chip Kelly offense.  Garrett Celek was resigned over the off-season to a four-year deal with almost $5 million guaranteed.  That is a lot of commitment for a role-player, but it is also proof that Celek is very much in the plans now that Kelly is in town.  He has a chance to catch some passes, like his brother, but it is far more likely that Celek will play a key “real” football role that will mostly frustrate fantasy owners of his, McDonald, or any of the other 49ers’ TEs.

Option 3: Blake Bell, because Chip Kelly loves former QBs who play TE
Admittedly that lead-in for Bell is a bit flimsy, but it was hard to come up with a comparison or witty comment for Bell.  He showed better than most everyone expected in 2015, though his expectations were just about nothing heading into the season.   Bell is absolutely a project at TE, but he has great size and he has a good feel for the game as a former QB, which is absolutely something that Chip Kelly could notice and covet.  I’d list Bell as a wildcard here but he has a long way to go in his own development to leapfrog either/both of McDonald and Celek.  One of them faltering would also go a long way to securing Bell’s spot and role as well.

Option 4: Bruce Miller, the dark horse.
Chip Kelly doesn’t use a fullback… it is unknown as to whether he even acknowledges the existence of a true fullback.  Well, Bruce Miller has been a cornerstone of the 49ers’ offense for years as the lead-blocking, check down receiving fullback, so the writing should be on the wall for him, right?  Wrong… The love for Miller in San Francisco runs SO deep that he is exclusively working as a tight end during OTAs. Miller has proven to be a reliable receiver over the years out of the backfield as well as an excellent blocker, so the crazy part is that this experiment may end up gaining traction throughout the summer.  Crazier things have happened and, as mentioned before, if Miller’s blocking entices Kelly enough, he could easily stay on the roster and bump one of the others off.