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Gold Diggers: Why do the 49ers invest so much in running backs?

Is it as simple as Shanahan?

Nary a 49ers game goes by without one of the broadcasters mentioning that Kyle Shanahan (like his father before him) can get production out of any running back. While that does appear to be accurate, Michelle Magdziuk wondered on today’s Gold Diggers podcast why Shanahan continues to invest premium assets into a position he can frequently pluck from anywhere.

There is no question that Kyle Shanahan can get production out of running backs nobody has heard of before. Even if you only count his time in San Francisco, the list is impressive. In 2018, undrafted free agent Matt Breida ran for almost 1,000 yards and more than 5 yards per carry. In 2019, Breida again ran for more than five yards per carry, while journeyman teammate Raheem Mostert was a near yard better than that at almost six yards per carry.

The year after that, Mostert was again over five yards per carry while a third undrafted running back, Jeff Wilson Jr., was at 4.8 per carry. In 2021 it was 6th round draft pick Elijah Mitchell’s turn to rack up the yards, gaining 963 of them at 4.7 yards per attempt in 11 games. Clearly, Kyle Shanahan knows how to maximize a running back’s talents.

At the same time, Kyle Shanahan also continues to invest significant resources into the running back position. In his first year at the helm, Shanahan pounded the table for Utah’s Joe Williams, and the team eventually traded two picks to get him in the fourth round even though he wasn’t even on their draft board at the time.

In 2018, the 49ers made Jerick McKinnon the fourth highest-paid ball carrier in the league with a $30 million deal. The year after that, in 2019, the 49ers reportedly made a strong push to sign Le’Veon Bell and gave Tevin Coleman a two-year, $10 million contract. In addition, last year they traded two picks to the division rival Rams for the right to draft Trey Sermon in the third round, and this year they plucked Ty Davis-Price out of LSU in round three as well.

That begs the question: If Kyle Shanahan is so good at getting production out of low-cost options at running back (and he definitely is), why does he keep investing significant capital in the position?

“I don’t want to hear anymore that Kyle Shanahan can get production out of any running back,” Michelle said, “I don’t want to hear that anymore because it doesn’t matter. He keeps using premium draft picks and paying guys in free agency, so it’s not like you’re saving any money or draft picks. So you’re not getting the benefit from him finding these gems.”

While any casual football fan will tell you that depth at the position is important, you would think the 49ers wouldn’t have to invest resources to build up depth at that spot because they have been so good at maximizing the talents of more inexpensive options. The benefit of being able to do that is the opportunity to use those resources somewhere else, but so far, the team has continued their two-pronged approach.

Hopefully, Trey Sermon and Ty Davis-Price can be meaningful contributors next season for the team's sake. The point of the episode wasn’t to say that Sermon or Davis-Price will be bad players, only that equally productive players could have been acquired at a lower cost. It will be interesting to see if the team’s investment in that position continues in the Shanahan/Lynch regime.