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49ers positional review: San Francisco found their RB1

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Is the third down back on the team?

Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

On Friday, we reviewed the San Francisco 49ers quarterback position. I’ll file Jimmy Garoppolo under “good enough, for now.” As for the team’s running back position, it’s safe to say the Niners found their lead running back for the foreseeable future.

Making the Mostert of your opportunities

Raheem Mostert, who will turn 28 in April, was No. 1 in DVOA among all running backs by seven percentage points. Mostert finished ninth in success rate at 53%. He was 13th in broken tackle rate, breaking a tackle on average one out of five carries. Mostert had a double-digit carry in 12 games this past season. We shouldn’t be surprised by Mostert’s performance. His second carry of the season was a 15-yard touchdown run where Mostert outran two defenders to the end zone. Unfortunately, the play was called back by a Richie James hold.

Mostert took over as the 49errs “lead” back during the Ravens game to start December. From Week 12 on, Mostert was second in the NFL in touchdowns, fifth in carries that went for 10+ yards or more, and first in yards per carry at 6.1. Those volume stats don’t do Mostert justice as he had 50 fewer carries than a guy at the top like Derrick Henry. Kyle Shanahan would be wise to design his running game around Mostert next season, who is the perfect runner for a wide zone scheme. Mostert proved to be a patient runner, which is a term that gets thrown around often, but he does what all smart runners do. Let the offensive line do the work, find a crease, run for a lot of yards. Mostert’s balance and world-class speed are what caught defenses by surprise. He’s a bit faster than him, but, Mostert’s style of play is reminiscent of Tiki Barber in the sense that he runs a lot stronger than he’s listed, doesn’t go down on the first contact, and if there is the slightest crease, that’s all it takes for a big run.

Finding a reliable backup

Giving the ball to Mostert is the easy part. It’s next in line, that’s difficult. Tevin Coleman is entering the final year of his deal, and I’m not sure what he proved in 2019 to prove that he is worthy of an early extension. Coleman was 43rd in DVOA and 44th in success rate. I know that doesn’t tell the whole story, but comparing his numbers to Mostert behind the same line says a lot. For whatever reason, we didn’t see Coleman the receiving back this season. When I think of a good receiving back, screens and swing passes don’t come to mind. I want to see a back targeted down the field. Coleman didn’t have a target over ten yards in 2019.

Matt Breida appeared to fall out of favor with the coaching staff late in the season after coughing the ball up. His season DVOA would rank him 123rd, while his success rate ranks Breida 31st. Breida will be on the team next season, but what will his role be? He gets banged up more than you’d like, and I wonder if San Francisco brings in competition to push for that No. 2 spot behind Mostert.

Jeff Wilson was known for fumbling, but, quietly, he was an effective runner this season. Wilson didn’t play often, but he came in during critical moments of the game. Wilson played in the Super Bowl, which says a lot. He also played late in the game against the Falcons and saw the field in the two biggest regular-season games against the Saints and the Ravens. The coaching staff trusts Wilson so that I wouldn’t rule him out as a potential backup. Wilson didn’t have a longer target, but his pass protection and catching out of the backfield are competent. The team relied on Wilson to throw that “Texas” route out of the backfield.

We discussed Jerick McKinnon on Saturday. McKinnon is likely to be released, and the 49ers may bring Jet back on a minimum salary. If there’s a true receiving back on the roster, it’s McKinnon. There’s a lot of risks relying on him, though.

Free-agent options?

Wilson and Breida will be back, and, most importantly, for cheap. There is a lot of big-name free agent running backs that you’ll see many fans want the team to go after. Melvin Gordon, Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake, Carlos Hyde, Lamar Miller, the list goes on and on. I can’t imagine a scenario where paying a running back over 25-years-old is a good idea for your franchise. If there were a running back I’d pay in free agency; it’d be Chris Thompson. That’s a true third-down back that has the speed the 49ers crave and receiving ability and experience in pass protection. Thompson is 29, and you can likely find his skillset in the draft.

The 49ers can save over $8 million by cutting Coleman and McKinnon. From a team-building point of view, it makes zero sense to spend money on a running back in free agency after you just cut two. That doesn’t take into account both players you just released were free-agent signings from the past two seasons. Those signings didn’t work. Move on.

Options in the draft

The 49ers don’t have a Day 2 draft pick or a fourth-rounder, so there’s some pressure on the front office to nail free agency so they can fill out depth late in the draft. There are good running backs in the draft as there are every year. San Francisco should sign someone who fits the mold, and if he pushes Breida or Wilson for a spot, great. If not, develop said rookie and hope he turns out to be a stud like Mostert.

The Niners aren’t spending a first-round draft pick on a running back. If you had to pick one position on the team that you felt confident that the team wouldn’t use a first-round draft pick on, it’s running back.

How confident should the team be moving forward?

Very. With how Mostert ran this past season, how could you not be? We’ll credit the offensive line once we get there, but this is Mostert’s show. His success in this offense should make it difficult to invest in the position. Mostert has two years left on his contract. When the time comes, the 49ers will decide to extend him. They can cross that bridge when they get there. Until then, ride Mostert’s speedy legs until he gives you a reason not to. In 2019, that didn’t happen. Mostert was superb, and with Wilson and Breida behind him, the 49ers have to feel confident in the position moving forward.