The draft process continues to prove to be a crapshoot for the 49ers. However, you can come up with a persuasive argument that this team is better at drafting on the third day than on the first two days.
You don’t get a gold star for selecting Nick Bosa or for Deebo Samuel falling into your lap. But you get a round of applause for finding George Kittle, D.J. Jones, Dre Greenlaw, Azeez Al-Shaair, Matt Breida, and others on the final day of the draft.
The discourse about running backs on social media has gone to “don’t waste a draft pick on them.” Yet, seven of the top ten rushers in the NFL were drafted in the second round or earlier. Two others were early third-round picks. The last one was Elijah Mitchell.
As is the case with any position or draft pick, there are studs and players that don’t pan out. In the Niners’ case, Trey Sermon and Jordan Mason are the most recent examples. Mason has yet to play an NFL game but has impressed the coaching staff more than the recently waived Sermon. General manager John Lynch acknowledged they don’t know what Mason will become but were encouraged enough by what they saw during the preseason.
Lynch was asked whether there’s something unique about scouting running backs, given the team’s success with undrafted and lower-round prospects, or if it’s a position that’s harder to predict:
“That’s a good question. We’ll always look at our processes we do every year. The one thing I think we won’t apologize is for having success in later rounds, whether it be [New York Giants RB] Matt Brieda or [RB] Jeff Wilson [Jr.], those guys weren’t even drafted and J.P. Mason and [RB] Elijah Mitchell. We’re happy. We don’t wear it as a badge of honor.
Some teams, they’re very beholden to their draft choices. Like they’re not going to move on from a draft choice. We’re not that team. We’re going to play the best players, but we’re also not the team that we’re going to prove a point and let everyone know we’ll cut a third-round pick. I take no joy in doing that. And every draft pick that doesn’t shine, I take that personally. We all do.”
I could not agree more with Lynch’s sentiment or line of thinking. Most teams get 7-10 picks in a draft and a pool of undrafted free agents. The goal is to hit on 3-5 of those players. Common sense tells you the best players are at the top of the draft, so those are the picks you have to nail.
But we have the Lynch/Kyle Shanahan tenure as proof that that’s not how the NFL Draft works. So, especially in this case, why does it matter that the team whiffed on Sermon if Mason, Mitchell, or Ty Davis-Price end up being productive backs during their rookie contracts?
It’s one thing to second guess taking a running back early, but it’s evident that’s a position the 49ers feel is vital to invest in. It’s tough to say, “how dare you pick the running back that was a high recruit and excelled at Oklahoma and Ohio State.”
Lynch believes in the team’s process:
“We have a good process, and I think our late-round success, I always go back to, I think it’s the real synergies between personnel and coaching. And that’s why I think we hit on those guys. I guess you go back in our history, some of the running backs that haven’t worked out, we’ll take a hard look at that, but I’m confident in the group as a whole, and I’m confident in this roster as a whole, I think it’s a good one. It gives us an opportunity. I remember playing for [former NFL head coach] Mike Shanahan. He used to. It was almost every meeting. All you can ask for is a chance in this league, and this team, as it's constructed, has a chance. And that’s a good feeling going into the year.”
There’s luck involved in hitting on these undrafted free agents. Breida averaged 8.7 and 7.9 yards a carry during his first two seasons at Georgia Southern. He was a monster, running for over 1,400 yards both years. Then, as a senior, averaged 3.8 yards a carry. That led to Bredia going undrafted.
We saw firsthand how dynamite Bredia is as a runner in the NFL. Mason’s story isn’t all that different.
At Georgia Tech, Mason averaged 6.1 and 5.2 yards per carry. Then, the Yellowjackets had a 5-star recruit come in and win the job as a freshman. Part of that is politics to get a kid to commit. That freshman, Jahmy Gibbs, is now the starting running back for Nick Saban at Alabama.
Assistant general manager Adam Peters spoke about how the team found Mason:
“Yeah, he was actually beat out his junior and senior year by a guy who’s really highly talented, actually transferred to Alabama this year. Gibbs is his name, so really got dug out by [area scout] Warren Ball, he’s our Midwest scout now, was our Northeast scout, but he crosschecks the running backs. And he dug him out, just watching a ton of tape, and said, ‘I really like this guy.’ I remember he sent me a cut up like four days before the draft, ‘watch this guy’, so I watched him, coach [Anthony] Lynn watched him, and we thought he was right up there with everybody. So kudos to Warren for find him and obviously, I think he’s been a great fit for us.”
Mason didn’t take long to make a name for himself during training camp. During the move-the-ball periods, he single-handledly carried the third-team offense. Then, in the preseason, it was more of the same.
His success was downplayed due to who he was going against. If anything, gaining yards behind that line only solidified Mason’s spot on the roster. Speed and decisiveness are how you thrive in Shanahan’s system. That’s what you see with Mason, and that’s why he’ll have an opportunity this season for the 49ers.