With the 2016 NFL Draft fast approaching, we're going to take a quick look at each position on the San Francisco 49ers, review what happened in free agency, if anything and then list off some NFL Draft prospects. Rather than start with the very obvious quarterback position, I'm going to dive right in and take a look at the running backs, for whatever reason.
Last year, the 49ers let long-time starter Frank Gore depart for greener pastures in free agency and showed a lot of confidence in second-year back Carlos Hyde out of Ohio State. Hyde showed everything the team wanted him to show, rushing for 4.1 yards per carry with 470 yards and three touchdowns in seven games.
Unfortunately, that's where the showing ended. Hyde sustained a foot injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the season (and for some reason, the 49ers didn't place him on injured reserve as though they would have been justified in trying to rush him back to get playing time in a lost year). The 49ers entered the season with Reggie Bush, Jarryd Hayne and Mike Davis on the roster behind Hyde.
Bush did what Bush always does and got injured himself, while Davis, a rookie, looked so thoroughly unprepared to play in the NFL that it's legitimately surprising that the 49ers didn't outright release him. Hayne found himself off the roster because Jim Tomsula wasn't a fan of long-term projects and the 49ers were then in the market for veteran running backs.
Guys like Travaris Cadet and Kendall Gaskins spent some time with the team but chiefly, the 49ers rolled with Shaun Draughn and when he was injured himself, DuJuan Harris. Draughn, playing with his fifth team in four seasons, played in six games with 76 carries for 263 yards. Harris, playing for his fourth team in as many seasons, played in two games and carried the ball 27 times for 140 yards.
Both guys performed above expectations and while neither are desirable backup options, they both made their case. One of the few moves the 49ers actually made in the offseason was to re-sign Draughn to a new deal as he became a free agent. That could indicate that he's going to be the backup next year, but it's no guarantee. He'll likely have to prove his worth to head coach Chip Kelly in training camp.
Hyde is expected to be 100 percent by the time training camp rolls around and I expect he's the unquestioned starter going forward. Davis is a wild card and I have no idea if he has what it takes to play in the NFL, while Hayne is in a similar position. My gut tells me Hayne is an excellent fit for Kelly's offense, but that doesn't necessarily mean either of them fit.
Kelly is going to want a faster, shifty player and Hayne -- and to a lesser extent, Davis -- can both be that kind of guy. But Kelly is also a man who knows what he wants, and he can talk about not being involved in the personnel decisions all day long, but if he makes it clear to general manager Trent Baalke that he needs another running back, he'll get another running back.
That said, I don't expect anything close to a first-round pick would be used. But let's go ahead and list some of the top prospects.
- Ezekiel Elliott (Ohio State)
- Derrick Henry (Alabama)
- Devontae Booker (Utah)
- Kenneth Dixon (Louisiana Tech)
- Alex Collins (Arkansas)
- Jordan Howard (Indiana)
- Jonathan Williams (Arkansas)
- Kenyan Drake (Alabama)
- Paul Perkins (UCLA)
- C.J. Prosise (Notre Dame)
- Daniel Lasco (California)
- Tyler Ervin (San Jose State)
- Kelvin Taylor (Florida)
- Josh Ferguson (Illinois)
- DeAndre Washington (Texas Tech)
- Keith Marshall (Georgia)
- Aaron Green (TCU)
- Wendell Smallwood (West Virginia)
- Tre Madden (Southern California)
- D.J. Foster (Arizona State)
As usual, the value of a running back, especially in the NFL Draft, is ridiculously hard to gauge at any given time. Todd Gurley was drafted very high last season and it looks like it was a great selection by the Los Angeles Rams. Similarly, Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State is the top back in this year's draft and I can see him going high in the first round.
But after him, things get a little fuzzy. Derrick Henry is a special athlete, a rare combination of size and skill that should see him drafted in the first round. Devontae Booker out of Utah is a great receiving back and would be a good change of pace back for the 49ers, but he has significant injury concerns (a positive for Baalke) and is about to turn 24 years old.
The guys I like the most are UCLA back Paul Perkins and Louisiana Tech back Kenneth Dixon, both of whom are simply playmakers with an eye for the end zone.
I don't know if the 49ers will target any of these guys, but aside from the top two or three players, many of them should be available with a third-round pick or lower. It's a strong running back class overall, perhaps a bit overshadowed by the stronger class a year ago. I'd be fine with a high-ish pick being spent on a running back, personally.