The San Francisco 49ers have had good running back play for a long, long time. Frank Gore held the position down for longer than many expected, and Carlos Hyde has all the makings of a franchise running back now that Gore is gone. Many have remarked that Hyde would be one of the top backs in the NFL if he were playing for a better team.
I have no idea if the 49ers will be a better team in 2017, but Hyde also has had some issues with durability in his short career thus far. He runs hard, and he makes great decisions, but he’s so far not dependable over a 16-game season.
Last year, that led to the 49ers all giving meaningful playing time to guys off the street in DuJuan Harris and Shaun Graughn, and then there is the young Mike Davis. Nobody was particularly effective, but neither was anybody egregiously bad ... other than Davis, who truly seems like a lost cause.
The 49ers also signed Raheem Mostert off their practice squad in December, but he didn’t get much playing time.
Going into free agency, the 49ers had Hyde, Mostert and Davis under contract. They saw enough from Harris to want to hang on to him, and thus awarded him with a one-year contract for 2017. Davis is still on his rookie deal but I don’t imagine he will be a factor going forward.
The most recent addition to the team’s free agent class came at the running back position, when they agreed to terms with ex-New Orleans Saints running back Tim Hightower. He has some familiarity with Kyle Shanahan, but at 30 years old the upside is limited.
Fortunately, it sounds like they didn’t break the bank for Hightower, though the exact details of his contract are not yet concretely reported.
With Hyde as the starter and Hightower potentially being the primary backup, there’s some room on the roster. Harris is an effective stopgap and injury replacement, but there isn’t any upside there and I think we’ve seen everything we needed to see from Davis. Mostert doesn’t excite me personally either, so there’s some room.
Specifically, there’s room for a young guy to come in. One could argue that the 49ers could realistically target a new franchise back high in the draft with Hyde’s rookie contract set to expire coupled with his injury history. Or one could argue that the 49ers need a change-of-pace back with real starting potential.
All of this means the 49ers could realistically go after a running back at literally any point in the upcoming NFL Draft. I could see a first-round back and I could see them backing it all the way to the fifth or sixth before bringing one in. Below, I’m going to list a couple names — some top names, and some lesser names — and if you have any guys you’re interested in, post them in the comments for other folks.
Leonard Fournette, LSU: Obviously the biggest name in the draft, Fournette will likely be a top-10 pick in the NFL Draft. He had a bad ankle injury that limited him this past season, and that might scare some teams away. Given the 49ers’ history with injuries and drafted players, maybe they should be one of those teams.
Dalvin Cook, Florida State: Cook has some big concerns, notably his issues with ball security. He fumbles a lot, and it’s really unclear why. But he’s very fast, very strong, has great vision and is probably the more complete back than Fournette at this point. He’ll go in the first round.
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford: A lot of people took issue with him sitting out a bowl game to prepare for the NFL Draft and I see where they’re coming from. But it’s ultimately not something that we can ascribe a particular nefarious meaning to when drawing conclusions. It’s pointless to consider. What’s not pointless is that he’s a very complete back with a lot of potential as a receiver.
Alvin Kamara, Tennessee: He wasn’t an every-down starter, but he was incredible with the ball in his hands. He reminds me a lot of Jamaal Charles and may be available in the second or even third round.
D’Onta Foreman, Texas: Foreman was one of the most productive and impressive runners in the nation last season. His projected draft positioning is all over the board though, so I have no idea where he’ll go. Some have suggested first round, others have suggested fourth. It’s a weird situation.
Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State: He had a ridiculous 6.1 yards per carry to go along with 2,133 yards and 17 touchdowns. He is undersized, and that could be an issue, but that also means he’ll go in the later rounds. I think he’d fit well in Shanahan’s offense.
Aaron Jones, UTEP: A per-carry average of 7.7 yards with 1,733 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground. Pretty darn good. I like his running style, but he did have a severe ankle injury in 2015, which is always scary.
Samaje Perine, Oklahoma: A physical, hard-running guy who had 5.4 yards per carry and 1,060 yards while splitting the load with Joe Mixon, another running back who should be avoided at all costs for off-field reasons.