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Kyle Shanahan: Later round running backs work, but you can’t swear off high picks

The 49ers head coach has success with under the radar running backs. But he’s willing to consider anybody.

San Francisco 49ers v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers have been regularly mentioned as a potential 2018 destination for Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. Now that Jimmy Garoppolo is in the fold, the team does not need to spend a first round draft pick on the quarterback position. This leaves them with a lot of flexibility, and many people think Barkley is the most talented option they could pick.

One counter to that notion has been the fact that Kyle Shanahan and Bobby Turner (and Mike Shanahan) have had a lot of success turning late round running backs into successful options. There is a confidence in the system, and as we’re seeing with Matt Breida, the team might be comfortable waiting on the position.

The 49ers host the Jacksonville Jaguars this week, who’s offense features running back Leonard Fournette. During last year’s mock draft season, there was some thought the 49ers might take Fournette. It was not the prevailing thought, but it was out there.

On Wednesday, Kyle Shanahan was asked about his running back history, and if going with later round guys is a specific philosophy he has considered. He gave the kind of answer I would expect, acknowledging the value of late round guys but not refusing the notion of a first round pick.

“It’s been proven that you can get guys later. But, that by no means makes it that I’m going to say we’re never going to draft a running back high. When you find a special one and you think that makes sense for your team, you should never hesitate to do that. A big-time running back, whether it’s Fournette, whether it’s [Arizona Cardinals RB] Adrian Peterson who was a top-10 pick, whether it was [former NFL RB] Terrell Davis in the sixth round, whether it’s [Arizona Cardinals RB] David Johnson who I think was a third rounder or [Pittsburgh Steelers RB] Le’Veon Bell I think is a second rounder, all those guys are worth top-five picks, but they were all found different places. If they came back out, if Terrell came out I promise you he’s not going in the sixth round. He’s probably going as a top-five pick and that’s one of the reasons they won a Super Bowl. You’ve just got to find who you think that guy is. There’s lots of ways to do it.”

Carlos Hyde is a free agent after this season. Matt Breida has emerged as a solid complement to him, but it remains to be seen if the 49ers are prepared to turn him into a full-time starter. Joe Williams is also returning from injury next year, so the 49ers have some decisions to make.

Hyde has endeared himself to John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan with his commitment to the new offense, and his willingness to step up for his teammates. He very well could return, but barring a contract extension soon, it will depend on what the market dictates. If he finds a big offer on the open market, he is likely gone. But if it’s not particularly huge, maybe the 49ers re-sign him and don’t invest a high pick at running back.

The 49ers have some decisions to make this offseason. It’s not surprising they are playing the cards close to their chest.