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It’s a battle of the backup running backs at 49ers OTAs

Jerick McKinnon is expected to be the primary lead back, but Matt Breida and Joe Williams are just two of several competing for the next opportunity.

The San Francisco 49ers kick off their organized team practice activities (OTAs) on May 21st. Those will run through June 7th, followed by mandatory minicamp June 12th through 14th. This is as important a period as any in the offseason. Players have been going through classroom work, and had individual work on the field. OTAs and minicamp are when teams really get to implement the playbook and get players ready for training camp.

This also means players can take a step forward in competitions for either a starting job or simply a chance to make the roster. We’re two weeks away from the start of OTAs, so I thought now is a good time to start a preview of each position heading into the on-field workouts.

Today, we move on to the running back position.

Depth chart: Jerick McKinnon, Matt Breida, Joe Williams, Raheem Mostert, Jeremy McNichols, Jeffery Wilson

The San Francisco 49ers did not appear to make a significant attempt to re-sign Carlos Hyde, and instead invested a sizable chunk of money in Jerick McKinnon. The deal does not lock them in too much for the long-term, but giving McKinnon the fourth-highest APY (prior to Saquon Barkley’s rookie contract) certainly threw some folks for a loop.

Kyle Shanahan has made it clear McKinnon will be the lead guy. Matt Breida was a solid complement to Hyde last season, and would seem to be the early front-runner for the backup role. But there is room for change to that second and third running back position. Joe Williams is back from IR, while Jeremy McNichols and Jeffery Wilson are intriguing youngsters. Raheem Mostert will be primarily a special teams guy.

At first glance, Breida and Williams are competing for the primary backup role. We’ve seen what Breida can do, while Williams ended up on more of a red-shirt reason than a true season-ending injury reason. He had his moments last spring, but the team was not willing to wait out his injury, and so he spent the year learning the playbook and observing in practice.

John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have both made it clear Williams has to step up and competition will be strong at the running back position. Last season, McNichols spent 11 weeks on the 49ers practice squad, and then five weeks on the active roster in limited duty. He had a monster college career at Boise State, averaging 5.6 yards per rush, and scoring 20 rushing touchdowns in 2015 and 23 in 2016. Add in 88 receptions over the two seasons, and he’s a guy who has a chance to impress in camp. The 49ers added Wilson as a UDFA coming off a 2017 season at North Texas in which he averaged 6.5 yards per rush and also caught 24 passes out of the backfield.

Both Wilson and McNichols have an uphill climb in front of them, but the draft suggests the 49ers are pleased with what they bring to the table. The team could have invested a pick in a running back, but instead simply added Wilson as a UDFA. Given the question marks surrounding Williams, there is an opportunity for the McNichols and Wilson.

What OTAs mean for the position

Breida cannot let things slide between now and training camp, but he would seem to be in pretty good shape to maintain a “lead” for the first backup role. It doesn’t guarantee he won’t get supplanted on the depth chart by Week 1, but I think we see him head into training camp as the running back to beat behind McKinnon.

Williams faces a huge OTA period. He’s had a calendar year now to work with Kyle Shanahan’s playbook. I don’t expect him to have it 100 percent memorized, but he’s got to show he knows what his tasks are and is ready to build on last year. With no tackling in the offseason workout program, it’s more about understanding the playbook and knowing what you’re supposed to do. Training camp and the preseason are when execution will take a big step forward.

McNichols is sort of like a step back of Williams in this regard. The 49ers signed him to their practice squad after roster cuts, and so he has had over eight months with Kyle Shanahan’s playbook. Given that he did not join the 49ers until after training camp, this offseason is a big chance for him to impress the coaching staff.

On the other hand, Wilson as a UDFA has arguably the most work in front of him. He was plenty productive at North Texas, but he’s working from behind. He’s likely competing for a practice squad spot, but OTAs provide a chance to show how quickly he’s getting a hang of the playbook.