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49ers 2019 roster battles: Who emerges as the lead back?

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Breaking down the 49ers’ most contested roster battles this offseason.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers began their mandatory minicamp on Tuesday. It’s the final portion of the offseason program before training camp in late-July. General manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan enter into Year 3 at the helm of the 49ers and their roster, still rebuilding, has several positions that are far from certain heading into the 2019 season. The competition at running back will be less about landing a roster spot and more about earning the backfield’s leading role.

The locks

The 49ers signed Jerick McKinnon to a four-year, $30 million contract in March of 2018. After a promising training camp, McKinnon tore his ACL just days before the team’s Week 1 matchup with the Minnesota Vikings. The loss made drastic alterations to Shanahan’s plan for his offense. McKinnon is due $5.75 million in 2019, $5.7 of which is guaranteed. He’s expected to be ready for training camp. McKinnon’s contract and the opportunity to show his quality in Shanahan’s offense essentially guarantees a roster spot.

Another competitor for the starting role will be Tevin Coleman, who the 49ers signed to a two-year, $8.5 million contract in the offseason. Coleman comes from Atlanta having experience in the 49ers’ offense under Shanahan, the Falcon’s offensive coordinator in 2016. Coleman rushed for 520 yards and eight touchdowns that year, while adding 421 yards and four touchdowns through the air. $3.25 of his $3.6 million contract is guaranteed this season, making Coleman another lock for the 49ers’ final roster.

The competitors

There’s a good chance the 49ers carry four running backs on the team’s final 53-man roster. Both Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert, although listed as competitors, have a very good shot at making the team. Breida earned the leading role after McKinnon’s injury and put on an impressive showing in 2018. He carried the ball 153 times for 814 yards and three touchdowns, adding 27 catches for 261 yards and two touchdowns in 2018. Breida’s 5.3 yards per carry was good for 4th among NFL running backs. Nagging injuries hampered Breida’s production last season, but if he can stay healthy, he’s in line for a significant role in the backfield in 2019.

Mostert is the only 49ers running back that offers value on special teams, authoring several highlight plays in 2018. Mostert grew as a running back as the season went on as well. Against Green Bay in Week 6, Mostert totaled 12 carries for 87 yards. In Week 9 against the Oakland Raiders, he carried the ball seven times for 86 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown. He averaged 7.6 yards per carry on the season before suffering a broken forearm against the Raiders. Mostert may not be a major player in the battle for snaps in the backfield, but his special teams ability give him a good chance of making the roster.

Jeff Wilson Jr. was promoted from the practice squad in Week 12 to reinforce the 49ers’ ailing group of running backs. With Breida battling an ankle injury, Wilson was given a significant number of snaps to close out the season. He totaled 66 carries for 266 yards and 12 catches for 98. Wilson is a long-shot to make the 49ers’ roster, given the impressive stable of starting talent in front of him. He’s a strong candidate to land on the practice squad. Undrafted rookie Austin Walter’s best chance at remaining with the team will be on the practice squad.

Pending a surprise cut, the competition at running back should be more about earning snaps over a spot. Shanahan seems perfectly content to keep four starting-caliber options after seeing his backfield decimated by injury in 2018. McKinnon, Coleman, Breida, all with similar skill sets, all have the opportunity to carve out their own role this season. Mostert’s primary contribution will be on special teams (not to be undervalued) while filling in as the backup. The 49ers’ backfield may be set, but there’s still plenty of competition heading into training camp.