The venerable Frank Gore is now sporting an Indianapolis Colts uniform in 2015, and this means the San Francisco 49ers are relying on Carlos Hyde to carry the weight this season. But is the former Ohio State Buckeye ready to step out of Gore's shadow and into the limelight?
Reasons for pause
Inconsistent first-year production
Hyde had 83 carries for 333 yards and 4 touchdowns last season, so the sample size is small. Plus, he was playing behind the 49ers all-time leading rusher, which is entirely out of his control. What's concerning, however, is that when he carried the rock more than 9 times, he averaged a dismal 2.7 yards per carry. Maybe it's just a statistical subset outlier; maybe it's just because he was, after all, a rookie. Whatever the case, he'll be counted on to greatly improve in that area if he wants to be the lead back he's expected to be.
Hyde runs far too upright. This jumped out to me several times during last season. In doing so, he leaves himself wide open to a defender cleaning his clock or stripping the football away. He has to maintain a lower center of gravity, keep his head down, and lean forward to lead more with his shoulders. This may be the reason Hyde seemed to struggle when operating in tight space, which contributed to that 2.7 yards per carry average. If you watch his rookie highlights, many of them came when he received the ball with a wide open lane. Those are few and far between in the NFL and he'll have to learn how to open those lanes up for himself.
Although riddled with question marks, the 49ers have a crowded stable at the running back position. Kendall Hunter is almost at full speed after suffering an ACL injury last offseason. Hunter is a fifth year veteran, but he hasn't seen nearly as much playing time as anticipated thanks to injuries ending his 2012 and 2014 seasons, and admittedly hampering his 2013 campaign. Maybe I'm blindly biased and just not ready to give up on a player I had so much hope for in the early part of his career, but I still think, on paper, that Hunter is arguably the most talented back on this roster. The praise he's received from Colin Kaepernick and Trent Baalke is also telling.
Which leads us to Reggie Bush. Yes, Bush has had brilliant moments in his career but he's never been a super-effective between-the-tackles runner, he's 30 years old, and his list of seasons cut short by injury dwarfs Kendall Hunter's. Bush's greatest impact in 2015 may be relegated to situational downs and return duties.
Rookie Mike Davis has some nice upside but it will be difficult for him to get on the field if the 49ers carry Hyde, Hunter, and Bush. As has been widely talked about, the battle at this position will be one of the more exciting ones to watch during training camp.
After last season, defenses are going to challenge Kaepernick to beat them with his arm. They're going to bring the heat and make him prove that he can effectively beat a blitz and make a team pay down the field for it. To that point, teams are far more likely to stack the box and play closer to the line of scrimmage. If Kaepernick can't make teams pay for doing so and protection is suspect, it's going to be very difficult for Hyde to find running room.
So with all the aforementioned questions, why do fans and pundits feel that Hyde is ready to step into the lead role in this backfield?
Reasons to believe
Above all else, Hyde showed flashes of real promise from the onset of last season and any carries vultured from Frank Gore are hard earned and well deserved. But let's dive a little deeper into what makes Hyde a promising prospect in 2015.
Hyde was regarded as the best back in his draft class for a reason (albeit he was a second-round selection). In his junior year, he had 185 carries for 970 yards and 16 touchdowns, sporting an impressive 5.2 yards per carry average. In his senior year, he exploded for 1521 yards on 208 carries, with 15 touchdowns and an eye-popping 7.3 yards per carry. Furthermore, the Big Ten is no slouch of a conference. Hyde went up against some notable programs in both of those seasons, which bodes well for his future in the NFL.
Trent Baalke wants to run the ball and if Jim Tomsula had other ideas, he wouldn't have received the job. Baalke even spoke over—err, on behalf of—Tomsula at his introductory press conference to indicate as much. One would think that with the running game being a focal point, let alone improved pass protection also on the list of needs, that the 49ers would have gone for an offensive lineman in the early rounds of the 2015 draft or pursued one with greater capability than Erik Pears in free agency. Instead, the 49ers push onward without the services of left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Anthony Davis. With a starting lineup in flux and reported move to zone blocking, how that all shakes out will be the biggest factor in Hyde's 2015 season. All the talent and improvement in the world won't help him if the line can't hold the point of attack and give him something to work with.
San Francisco is going to give Hyde every opportunity to succeed but if he struggles out of the gate and Hunter and Bush are healthy, his leash might be shorter than expected. If he demonstrates a strong ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, it will go a long way in helping him hold onto the job.
Hyde runs with a full head of steam like a freight train; that much was evident last season. As noted earlier, however, he does need some work on hitting the hole with more decisiveness when it's not as wide open. He supposedly came into OTAs at 220 lbs after playing last season at 235 lbs. 220 gives him enough bulk to remain powerful but may help him hit the hole and get the engine running a little bit quicker. If he can keep his weight down, and whether that has a sizable impact or not, remains to be seen.
Yes, he appears in both categories for a reason. While Kaepernick hasn't struck fear in teams with his arm as of late, opponents still gameplan around his feet. Fearful he may takeoff down the sideline for 50 yards, opposing teams may elect to dedicate one man to spy Kaepernick and spread the linebackers out to the edges to prevent Kaepernick from getting by. This would expose things in the middle of the defense and give Carlos Hyde some space. As is always the case with starting NFL quarterbacks, the success of the offense hinges largely on Kaepernick.
When all is said and done, I see Hyde doubling up on his 2014 season but still experiencing some growing pains as a second-year back in a revamped offense. Look for him to clock in somewhere around 200 carries and 700 yards. Where do you have him netting out next season?