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Position Breakdown: Predicting the running back roles

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at San Francisco 49ers
Trey Sermon is poised to have an immediate impact as a rookie in the dangerous 49ers rushing attack.
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Leading up to the bloodiest day on the NFL calendar, this past Tuesday, the braintrust of Lynch and Shanahan had a number of difficult decisions to mull before cutting their roster to 53 players.

Nothing underlines how tight of a rope had to be walked more than the fact that three training camp participants — Nsimba Webster, Dakota Shepley, and Justin Hilliard — were claimed off of waivers before they could be added to the practice squad. Plus, Jonas Griffith was traded to the Broncos with a 2022 seventh-round pick for a 2022 sixth rounder and a 2023 seventh rounder.

The two toughest positions to whittle down should surprise no one based on what we’ve come to understand about who the front office values. At the first spot, an injury seemed to both clear up any issues and validate the need to stockpile talent on the defensive line.

As for the second, after a bundle of injuries last year, the running back room had similarly become a point of emphasis this offseason. This led to a crowded bunch of skilled ball carriers with two added in the draft — Trey Sermon and Elijah Mitchell — and Wayne Gallman in free agency.

Plus, the trio of Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr., and JaMycal Hasty, who suffered through an injury plagued 2020, and still managed to rack up a combined 1,269 yards, and 10 touchdowns.

Coincidently, an unlikely injury to Jeff Wilson Jr. in May landed him on the PUP list, and thinned the herd much like along the D-line. However, as the preseason games wore on, there still remained a surplus of NFL-caliber performers ready to go to battle.

Here’s how it all shook out, and what to expect from the remaining players.

Kyle Juszczyk

It’s easy to forget that Juice falls under the running back category, but he’s worth a mention, considering all of his other duties and contributions to the offense as a blocker and pass catcher. Of all the players, his place on the team was most assured, especially after signing his second contract with the 49ers that made him the league’s highest paid fullback.

Upon further inspection though, he actually agreed to a team friendly deal that he confirmed had a fair amount to do with the locker room culture and how he’s utilized by Shanahan’s scheme. Any player whose return is announced via tipsy Tweet can be counted on to safely survive to see the regular season.

Raheem Mostert

After torching the Packers in the NFC Championship game in 2019, Mostert entered the following year in the catbird seat, having proven his mettle on the biggest stage of his career. He added weight to better withstand the rigors of sixteen games as the featured back. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter, as a high ankle sprain cut his season in half.

It seems the deceptively speedy Mostert will always need a heavier, more bruising running mate to take on the responsibility of running between the tackles, so he can be at his best. Once that dirty work’s been done, you can expect Shanahan to liberally sprinkle in Mostert to blow by gassed defenders. Think of him like a relief pitcher, throwing 100 MPH to a batter who just faced a starter with nasty breaking stuff.

The exciting element that could truly unlock Mostert’s most valuable quality is Trey Lance. Using the threat of the dynamic QB’s legs to draw defenders will make Mostert’s job of turning the corner and bursting through a hole that much easier. Especially when the holes look like this, you can expect the Mosterati to burn rubber.

Trey Sermon

Prior to his selection in the third round, the rookie spent his college years lighting up the scoreboard at Oklahoma before transferring to Ohio State, where he helped power them to a National Championship appearance. His most impressive performance came in his conference championship against Northwestern.

Taking hold of the moment, Sermon gashed, thrashed, and smashed his way to 331 yards, and two TDs on 29 carries. Most impressive, he accrued 260 of those yards in the second half, only gaining strength as he further pummeled his opponents. What a way to break Eddie George’s single game rushing record at Ohio State.

When watching his tape, it’s easy to envision a seamless transition into the Niners offense. At 6 foot, and 215 pounds, he can immediately step into the role vacated by Tevin Coleman, as a sturdier, bigger back that can soften up a defense. Fans should be excited by the younger, and more dynamic upgrade who possesses other-worldly balance and body control, and is already familiar with the outside zone scheme.

Elijah Mitchell

A few things were notable about Mitchell’s selection in the sixth round. First, his pick meant Shanahan took more running backs in one class than in his previous four combined. Two, they were reportedly eyeing defense with their last selection, but everyone, even DeMeco Ryans, agreed taking the Louisiana product was worth the positional double down. Third, after he came off the big board, multiple teams texted assistant general manager Adam Peters to offer congratulations on sniping their guy.

With all that said, it’s clear that Mitchell was a pretty intriguing prospect. While less polished, in theory, he combines the best of both Mostert and Sermon. He played most of his college days at 215 pounds, but slimmed down to run a blazing 40 time of 4.38 at his pro day. He’s bulked back up to about 210 to maintain his mix of speed and power, which fits perfectly into the one-cut-and-go system in San Francisco.

In the meantime, Mitchell’s biggest impact could come on special teams. After missing two preseason games with an abductor strain, he made a tackle on the opening kickoff, and impressed with his two returns, one tallying 45 yards. The lack of options at the position guarantees Mitchell a role going forward. It’s easy to see how he could become an even bigger threat in and out of the backfield, especially with his reliable hands, which resulted in a 12 yard per catch average.

JaMycal Hasty

The undrafted free agent out of Baylor in 2020 performed admirably in limited snaps, before a broken collarbone ended his season. As an emergency option, he didn’t look in over his head, but never produced in a way that would make him a roster lock. Coming into this season, he looked like the man behind the odd man out until Wilson’s injury opened the door just a crack.

What did Hasty do? Simply slam the door off its hinges. He used the offseason to get stronger, and it paid massive dividends. The 5’8” back seemingly took players in college by surprise with his physical style, but that wouldn’t cut it in the pros. Now, with the added oomph to his game, he looked much more effective with the ball in his hands. He ate up 176 yards and three TDs on 35 carries, good for a five per rush clip. With numbers like that, he provides another layer of trusted padding in case of injury/or injuries.

Most everyone assumed Wayne Gallman had this spot locked down due to his excellent work in pass protection, a dimension that Hasty lacks. However, the raw production wasn’t there when it came to Gallman’s rushing numbers. It would have been disingenuous to deny Hasty a spot after repeatedly proving himself on the field, capping a stellar preseason with atwo TD performance against the Raiders. Besides, he’s clearly a team favorite.