Jeff Wilson, Jr. was a star running back at two small Texas schools: Elkhart HS and North Texas University. He signed with the 49ers as a UDFA, got cut in August and ended up on the practice squad.
A succession of injuries in the Niners running backs room gave him his chance in week 12, and he made the most of it, instantly beating out Alfred Morris for the Niner’s backup RB role behind the gimpy-ankled Matt Breida.
Wilson racked up 266 yards in 66 carries to finish out the year, an impressive 4.0 yards per attempt. Just as importantly in Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, he was adept as a receiver out of the backfield, hauling in 12 of 15 passes for 98 yards, 8.2 YPC. In the team’s December 2 loss to Seattle, he had more receiving yards (73) than star tight end George Kittle (70), the team’s leading receiver.
Experience: 1 accrued season
Wilson, a UDFA in 2018, signed a 2-year, $1.05 million contract with no guaranteed money when he was promoted from the practice squad at the end of November last season. In reality, it won’t be that much; he earned a pro-rated $170,000 last year (based on the contract’s annual $480,000 rate), so the most he could make over two years is $740,000.
If he makes the team and lasts all year, his salary this year will be $570,000; if he’s cut, there’s no dead money, and the 49ers keep it all.
What to expect in 2019:
Wilson, Jr. runs hard and is a reliable receiver. He stepped into Shanahan’s offense and picked right up where Matt Breida left, and Raheem Mostert left off, though the success of so many different running backs suggests that Shanahan (and the offensive line) deserve most of the credit and that running backs may be interchangeable (and easily replaceable).
There was just one problem with Wilson’s performance last year (and also in college), but it was a big one. He fumbled in three consecutive games, losing two of them, and even had a big drop against Seattle in week 15.
Shanahan was going to keep him on the bench the rest of that Seattle game as a result, but when Breida got further injured in overtime, he had no choice. WIlson Jr. came back in, held on to the ball and picked up 23 yards on three consecutive runs to set up the winning field goal.
Wilson Jr. does not have the elite speed that Shanahan prefers, running a 4.57 in the 40-yard dash, which may be why he did not have any of the explosion runs that Breida (and hopefully, Jet McKinnon, and Tevin Coleman) get in this scheme. If he makes the team, we can expect more of the same — a hard-running backup RB who keeps this offense moving, with a lower ceiling than the other backs and added anxiety about holding on to the ball.
Odds of making the roster:
Not good. Alfred Morris is gone, but the running backs room already has Breida, Mostert, McKinnon and Coleman along with essential fullback Kyle Juszczyk. There’s no real upside to his game and a lot of bigger talents with guaranteed money.
His best-case scenario is to match last year — get on the practice squad and see if injuries create a role for him. He’s facing much more talented competition, however.