UDFA rookie Jeff Wilson, Jr. made his first NFL active roster a week ago, and it already looks like he has beaten out veteran Alfred Morris to become the Niners’ No. 2 running back. (Morris was a healthy inactive vs. Tampa Bay.)
The 33 yards Wilson, Jr. gained against Tampa Bay on seven carries is more than Morris has picked up in a game since Week 5, and the rookie’s average of 4.7 yards per carry is almost twice as high as Morris’ 2.4 YPC in the last five games. Wilson got two first downs on those seven carries, and a touchdown that was reversed and called barely short after a video review.
Perhaps more to the point, Kyle Shanahan values pass catching in his receivers, and Wilson had over 500 receiving yards on 70 catches in college (on top of 3,200 yards on the ground). Morris has hauled in only six of his 11 targets this year — which is terrible considering the easy passes RBs tend to get — while Wilson has a 100 percent reception rate! OK, that was one catch for 8 yards on his only target, but it’s a good start. (h/t to NN’s Akash Anavarathan, who predicted Wilson, Jr.’s emergence back in October.)
It’s a little early to declare him as another UDFA success for John Lynch along the lines of Matt Breida, especially after the disappointments of this season. Last year, the Niners tried out several unheralded players late in the injury-racked season, and their surprising success fueled a lot of unrealistic expectations this year.
Breida and George Kittle have lived up to every bit of fan expectations, plus a bit more, but euphoria about players like Adrian Colbert, Trent Taylor, Kendrick Bourne, C.J. Beathard and Akhello Witherspoon proved a bit premature.
The biggest flaw in Wilson Jr.’s college game was ball security, but he did not fumble against Tampa Bay or in 19 preseason carries. That’s worth keeping an eye on, but if anything it has given him an edge against competitors such as Raheem Mostert (who put the ball on the ground in the preseason) and Morris (who fumbled twice against the Vikings).
He’s not especially fast, with a 4.57 40-yard dash time at his pro day (compared to 4.38 for both Breida and McKinnon), which is one good reason to temper expectations. But his pass-catching ability is crucial in this scheme. He’s already producing more than Morris on the turf, so as long as he maintains good ball security he should get the rest of this season as Breida’s backup.
All bets are off next year, when McKinnon and Raheem Mostert come back from season-ending injuries. These last few games might be the peak of Wilson, Jr.’s NFL career, but he’ll never get a better chance to show what he can do.