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Barnwell: 49ers need to solve the running back logjam

Do they really, though?

San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Much has been made about the San Francisco 49ers running back situation. Head coach Kyle Shanahan believes having four potential options is a benefit for the offense. He’s also stated how the 49ers will be a matchup team. So if Tevin Coleman matches up better against Tampa Bay, he’ll be the lead guy. If the Bengals can’t guard Jerick McKinnon out of the backfield, guess who’s getting all the targets that game?

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell made a to-do list for every NFC team. For the Niners, Barnwell believes the team needs to “solve the running back logjam.” Here’s what he had to say:

Keeping four backs doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially when you want at least one of them to regularly play special teams. Coleman is virtually guaranteed a roster spot and doesn’t play special teams. McKinnon was only a regular special-teamer for the Vikings in 2015. Breida was a regular in 2017, but he moved off special teams as he took over the starting role and struggled with a high ankle sprain last season.

Keeping four backs wouldn’t be anything new. Not to mention Raheem Mostert is a special teams ace. I’d imagine we see Kyle Juszczyk on special teams more, as well as whoever wins the second and third-string tight end spots. Last year Garrett Celek and Ross Dwelley played over 35% of the special teams’ snaps.

That leaves Breida and McKinnon to compete. The 49ers could probably carry them both, but is it really an effective use of their roster spots and playing time? McKinnon offers more as a receiver and allows the 49ers to disguise their intentions pre-snap, which has been key for Shanahan, but Breida has been better between the tackles and might be a better contrast to Coleman. He has been more efficient than McKinnon on a carry-by-carry basis, although Breida’s 5.3 yards-per-carry figure from a year ago is a bit inflated, given that he was 30th in success rate.

Would the 49ers rather pay $3.7 million for McKinnon or $645,000 for Breida? Given that the free-agent deal clearly suggests that the 49ers see McKinnon as a game-changing back, my guess is that they’ll lean toward McKinnon. If that’s the case, they should see whether anyone would be interested in trading for Breida, who will be a restricted free agent after the season.

There are a few things to unpack here. Looking at the 49ers running back situation like this is off, to begin with. The team doesn’t have to make any decisions any time soon. If you go into training camp and feel like McKinnon hasn’t fully recovered from his injury, then maybe. Even then, you have the flexibility to give him some time to recover since you have Breida and Coleman.

Barnwell mentions McKinnon as a receiver. Don’t be surprised if we see a good amount of two-back formations with McKinnon split out. Because the skill set of the three backs are diverse, it’s silly to suggest moving on from one—especially at this point in the offseason.

It’s been pretty evident during free agency that running backs aren’t commanding big money. Factor in the amount of cap space the 49ers have, and that furthers the point that no decision needs to be made. If each running back has a big season, deal with it next year. The 49ers should let this play itself out. You’ll never hear a coach say, “we have too many options.” With an innovative mind like Shanahan, this is a good thing.