The San Francisco 49ers run game is a problem thanks in large part to the offensive line. The running backs have not exactly wow’d for the most part, but they’re not getting any help from the line.
The 49ers made a big change this offseason when they signed Jerick McKinnon to replace Carlos Hyde. McKinnon joins Matt Breida in the backfield, although both players are expected to be out until the end of training camp with a calf strain and separated shoulder, respectively. Joe Williams was competing for the No. 3 running back role, but is now out until at least Week 1 with a rib fracture. That leaves Raheem Mostert, Alfred Morris, Jeremy McNichols, and Jeff Wilson competing for whatever opportunity might exist.
That competition will be front and center the next two preseason games, but the 49ers are counting on McKinnon and Breida to lead the way. Head coach Kyle Shanahan has said McKinnon will be the main guy, but we can expect to see plenty of Breida as well.
We recently chatted with Football Outsiders following the release of their 2018 Almanac (purchase here). I asked them about the running back position, and what Kyle Shanahan’s history with backs could mean for them. FO’s Carl Yedor had this to say:
Shanahan has been a head coach or offensive coordinator each year since 2008. In those seasons, his teams have finished all over the place in rushing DVOA. His best mark was in 2012 when Washington ranked second, and his worst was when his Houston team finished dead last in 2009 (that Houston team had Arian Foster in his rookie season, though he didn’t get any carries until the month of December). This makes sense, as he’s had very different personnel at his stops in Houston, Washington, Cleveland, Atlanta, and San Francisco, but you’re right that there have been some notable highs. Alfred Morris was excellent in his rookie season in 2012. Freeman and Tevin Coleman have formed quite the dynamic duo for the Falcons in the past few seasons as well.
McKinnon definitely brings a flexible skill set, and Shanahan has shown an ability to get his players in favorable matchups to exploit defensive weaknesses. Matt Breida had a fairly strong argument for more playing time, as he performed much more efficiently with his carries in 2017 than former starter Carlos Hyde did, finishing fifth in rushing DVOA among running backs compared to Hyde’s 35th. I expect Shanahan to use his offensive play design to take advantage of what the defense presents him with in the run game, but we will have to wait and see whether that results in McKinnon earning significantly more than the 200ish touches he’s gotten in each of the past two seasons.