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49ers had an interest in free agent RB Gio Bernard early in free agency

Could we see a running back drafted earlier than expected? We take a look at the best pass-catching running backs in the draft

Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported that the San Francisco 49ers had an early interest in free-agent running back Gio Bernard in free agency before Bernard signed with Tampa Bay. The Niners have been looking for a pass-catching running back since the Kyle Shanahan, and John Lynch regime began but have swung and missed in that category.

How early is too early for a running back in this upcoming draft? If Alabama’s Najee Harris is available at No. 43 overall, someone in the 49ers front office may have to tie Shanahan down to avoid taking the top running back in the draft.

Everything about Harris’s game suggests he’ll be a stud in the NFL. At 230 pounds, he averaged seven broken tackles a game while leading all draft-eligible running backs in “total points rating per route run,” per Sports Info Solutions.

Harris has the patience and vision to thrive in the 49ers wide zone scheme, and he never has to come off the field. While many would tell you, “you can find running backs anywhere,” Harris doesn’t fall under that same umbrella. He’s a unique talent and one who would flourish in San Francisco.

Let’s take a look at a few other running backs San Francisco could target.

Michael Carter - UNC

Carter is a player who I believe could be a valuable player and reminds me a lot of Duke Johnson coming out of Miami. Carter is small, at 5’7 and 201 pounds. He ran well, as evidenced by a 4.56 40-yard dash. Carter’s strength comes in his agility. He ran a 3.98 short shuttle and a 6.81 3-cone. Those drills matter more for running backs, and both of those times were elite.

Carter is one of the most elusive backs in this class. Carter rarely goes down on the first contact. More often than not, defenders at the college level couldn’t get a hand on him. SIS charts the positive runs a player has in both zone and gap scheme. Carter had 57% of his carries in zone go for a positive gain and broke 28 tackles without fumbling.

In the passing game, Carter’s EPA was 0.35, which was higher than Harris, Carter’s teammate Javonte Williams, and just about every other runner not named Travis Etienne. Despite being small in stature, Carter shows a willingness to pass protection. Effort and knowing where to go are a big part of pass protection. There will be plays where Carter’s strength is exposed, but not enough to worry.

Elijah Mitchell - Louisana Lafayette

Mitchell officially ran a 4.38 and 4.39 at his pro day. The school listed Mitchell at 218 pounds but weighed in at 201 pounds for his pro day. That’s a drastic change, but Mitchell said he changed his diet and started eating better to be more fit for sprints.

Mitchell had elite jumps in both the vertical (37.5”) and broad (10-foot-8) while having elite ten and 20-yard splits to match his 40. Oh, and he ran a 6.94 3-cone, which is also superb. We know running back coach Bobby Turner loves explosive athletes at the position, and there aren’t many better than Mitchell.

Mitchell is a one-cut runner who doesn’t mess around in the backfield. When he puts his foot in the ground, you see the acceleration. Mitchell also has good contact balance to stay on his feet after arm tackles. In the games I watched, he always found the cutback lane to create more yards for himself.

The Ragin Cajuns were comfortable motioning Mitchell out of the backfield and running routes with him. I saw him make an impressive catch where Mitchell had to reach behind him for a poorly thrown pass. Mitchell did a nice job of scanning the field in pass protection, but he’ll need to do a better job of not dropping his head.

Fumbles and lack of power were an issue, too. But, in the fifth round or later, the 49ers could have an upgrade at RB3.

Javian Hawkins - Louisville

Hawkins came in much lighter than he was listed at Louisville. Instead of 196, Hawkins weighed 183 at the Cardinal’s pro day. He ran fast, at 4.44, but the rest of his numbers were pedestrian.

Hawkins is your classic change of pace runner, but he’s more elusive and electric than even your typical third-down back. Hawkins broke 21 tackles on 131 carries this past season despite his size while averaging 6.2 yards per carry.

Hawkins looks comfortable catching the ball out of the backfield. Once you get him 1-on-1 in the open field, that’s where the fun begins. Hawkins’s size issues show up when he’s asked to pass protect, as even cut blocks don’t do much against blitzers.

If you’re a coach, the one way around that is to let Hawkins run routes. Problem solved. Hawkins is a walking highlight that would thrive in the space the 49ers create on offense.

Other names to keep an eye on

Demetric Felton - UCLA

Kene Nwangu - Iowa State

Trey Sermon - Ohio State

Chris Evans - Michigan