Going into this month’s mandatory minicamp, the San Francisco 49ers appear set at two skill positions. General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan focused on adding depth to their running back group.
The Niners added three running backs to their stable this offseason. They signed veteran Wayne Gallman Jr. and picked Trey Sermon and Elijah Mitchell in the 2021 NFL Draft. The three newcomers join Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr., Kyle Juszczyk, JaMycal Hasty and Josh Hokit in the backfield.
Lynch and Shanahan knew the importance of adding some talent to their running back group following last season. Mostert, Wilson and the now-departed Tevin Coleman combined to miss 20 games in 2020, which hampered San Francisco’s rushing attack.
The 49ers were already dealt a blow to their backfield. Wilson — who led the team with 600 rushing yards last season — suffered a torn meniscus and will begin the 2021 campaign on the PUP list.
Wilson’s injury gives more significance to Gallman’s signing. Coleman struggled during the 2020 campaign, averaging just 1.9 yards per attempt. Gallman got a lot more work last season while with the New York Giants. The 26-year-old ran for 682 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 4.6 yards per attempt, tied for 12th most among all NFL running backs.
Unless they blow the competition out of the water, Sermon and Mitchell will likely only see limited snaps during their rookie season, but the duo does give the Niners some much-needed depth.
Shanahan’s offense hasn’t needed a star-level back to be effective in the run game. Players like Devonta Freeman and Alfred Morris had the best years of their career in Shanahan’s outside zone scheme.
Even with more depth and Shanahan’s system, Pro Football Focus isn’t too bullish on the 49ers’ running backs group. PFF ranked each team’s backfield and has San Francisco at No. 18.
Injuries to Raheem Mostert in 2020 put a damper on what was another impressive showing when he was healthy and on the field. Mostert is one of the fastest running backs in the NFL and an ideal fit in a Kyle Shanahan scheme that prioritizes big plays in the run game. Mostert has put up rushing grades of 77.0 or higher in each of the past two seasons.
It’s also worth noting Kyle Juszczyk here as one of the few high-usage fullbacks remaining in the NFL. His 3,383 offensive snaps since 2014 are over twice as many as the next closest fullback, and his 79.8 offensive grade over that stretch falls behind only Anthony Sherman at the position.
Mostert has blazing speed and has shown how good he can be with Shanahan calling the plays. In 2019, Mostert averaged 5.6 yards per attempt, second only to Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson. Mostert also played a majority of the snaps at running back during the 2019 postseason run. His 220-yard performance against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship is the second-highest single-game playoff total in league history.
If Mostert and Gallman can stay healthy to start the season, the Niners’ rushing attack could be among the best in the league. It will only get better once Wilson returns to the lineup.
Here are the teams that PFF has in the top five of its running back rankings:
PFF also released its offseason rankings of each NFL teams’ wide receivers group. With George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk back on the field, PFF has the 49ers’ receiving corps at No. 7.
The 49ers have built a dangerous group of playmakers; it’s just a matter of keeping everyone on the field this season. Deebo Samuel has been used everywhere in this offense. He excels on “space” plays, as he’s averaged 9.6 yards after the catch per reception in his two years in the league, and he is also adept at working the intermediate route tree when lined up on the outside. Former first-rounder Brandon Aiyuk has similar YAC ability, but he was used in a more traditional role last season on his way to an 80.8 receiving grade, second-best among rookies.
After Samuel and Ayiuk, the wide receiver snaps are up for grabs to a plethora of options. Travis Benjamin has played just 189 snaps since 2019, but at his best, he has take-the-top-off-the-defense speed that has led to 14.9 yards per reception in his career. Richie James Jr. has created plenty of big plays himself, averaging 18.1 yards per reception in his 38 career catches, but he also has five drops. Former third-rounder Jalen Hurd is a wild card after he showed early promise during the preseason as a rookie, but he’s yet to take a regular-season snap.
George Kittle is the league’s best all-around option at tight end; he’s one of the few options who can run block effectively in-line while keeping defenses off balance with his route-running and after-the-catch ability. Kittle has graded at 84.0 or better in each of the last three seasons, including an incredible 94.4 grade in 2019. Ross Dwelley will battle 2020 sixth-rounder Charlie Woerner for the backup job.
The 49ers have an excellent trio of pass-catchers in Samuel, Ayiuk and Kittle, but it’s all about health and one more target emerging to move them into the upper echelon of the league.
As PFF writer Steve Palazzolo says, the Niners have built up an impressive stable of playmakers. Shanahan uses Kittle, Samuel and Aiyuk in a variety of ways. Each has the ability to make big plays when targeted close to the line of scrimmage as well as down the field.
The competition for the third receiver spot will be one of the most intriguing position battles at the 49ers’ training camp. The veteran Benjamin appears to be the early favorite due to his experience. Richie James has shown he can fill in admirably if the team needs, but as Palazzolo states, Hurd remains the wild card.
After looking like a third-round steal during his first two pro training camps, Hurd has dealt with brutal injury luck and hasn’t played a snap in two regular seasons. Hurd played so well during the 2019 training camp that NBC’s Peter King thought he would be the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Lynch says Hurd’s recovery is coming along nicely, and he is expected to be ready for training camp.
Jauan Jennings could also throw his name into the hat with a strong showing at camp. The 2020 undrafted free agent has reportedly looked sharp during OTAs and could be a pleasant surprise next season.
The teams with the best pass-catching corps according to PFF are:
NFC West teams: Rams (8), Seahawks (10), Cardinals (17).
What do you think of PFF’s rankings? Where do you have San Francisco’s running backs and pass-catchers ranked among all NFL teams?