Kyle Shanahan has often been unable to stop himself when it comes to running back temptation in the NFL Draft.
Regardless of how many late-round and undrafted free agent backs elsewhere in his offense, the 49ers have continually invested significant resources in a position that is being increasingly devalued by the league.
Case in point, the last two drafts, which have seen the 49ers spend third-round picks on Trey Sermon and Tyrion Davis-Price. Sermon is no longer with the team, and Davis-Price played in just six games as a rookie.
After one miss and another swing that does not look like paying off, could Shanahan have learned his lesson.
Perhaps not, suggests Jordan Reid of ESPN, who in his seven-round mock draft had the 49ers using one of their three third-round picks on Devon Achane, the running back from Texas A&M.
It is a pick that does not appear to make a great deal of sense. The 49ers now have arguably the best running back in football following their blockbuster trade for Christian McCaffrey last season. McCaffrey splits carries with the impressive but oft-injured Elijah Mitchell, San Francisco’s sixth-round pick in 2021, with that duo backed up by a thumper in Jordan Mason, an undrafted free agent last year.
So with all the boxes at the position, is there any need for the 49ers to even consider a running back in the 2023 draft, and is Achane talented enough to merit them targeting him with one of their top-three picks?
Assessing the latter question first, there is little doubt Achane is a ‘Shanahan back’.
He’s a fast back who can easily beat defenders to the edge and displays excellent burst to the second level when hitting the hole.
Achane combines that explosiveness with extremely impressive change of direction quickness. He moves extremely well laterally and shows both fluidity and speed in reverting back to vertical running. He makes fast, agile cuts and can string them together to make several defenders miss.
His elusiveness is paired with surprising contact balance for a back who is a little over 5ft 8in and 188 pounds. Achane regularly falls off arm tackles and can keep his legs churning for extra yardage even when corralled by defenders.
average rushing yards over expected of 2023 running backs:— Tej Seth (@tejfbanalytics) March 23, 2023
1. bijan robinson (+1.80)
2. zach charbonnet (+1.34)
3. zach evans (+1.31)
4. devon achane (+1.16)
5. tank bigsby (+1.14)
6. jahmyr gibbs (+1.11)
7. kendre miller (+1.10)
8. sean tucker (+0.53)
A strong hands-catcher who attacks the ball as a receiver and unexpectedly useful at picking up blitzes, Achane is a well-rounded back, but there are two aspects of his game that would be most enticing to Shanahan.
Achane is experienced in carrying the ball on zone runs and has demonstrated prowess in identifying and decisively hitting the cutback lanes on such rush attempts. He would, therefore, be a natural fit for the 49er offense and would give San Francisco’s run game the home-run hitter it lacks with the 4.3 speed he showcased at the Combine.
After Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs, is Devon Achane the RB3???? pic.twitter.com/Fl1BafoF9s— John “Supi” Supowitz (@ImThatSupi) February 26, 2023
But even with the added element of speed to take it the distance from anywhere on the field, it is difficult to see a path to regular carries, at least in the immediate future for Achane.
Though McCaffrey has lost some speed as injuries have taken his toll, he is still a back who can flip the field instantly. Despite his frightening speed, Achane would still represent something of a superfluous addition.
Given the depth the 49ers have in the backfield, that would be the case for most runners in this class.
Yet, there is perhaps a case for adding another thumper into the mix in the later rounds who could prevent McCaffrey and Mitchell from absorbing too much punishment but offer value in the passing game, something Mason does not provide.
I like Roschon Johnson pic.twitter.com/VIg5q4aPPH— Cory (@realcorykinnan) March 20, 2023
Roschon Johnson, Bijan Robinson’s backup at Texas, could be a candidate to fill such a role. At 219 pounds, he is built perfectly to serve as an NFL power back, and his 10-yard split of 1.52 seconds was faster than that of Davis-Price in 2022 (1.54).
Excellent in pass protection and coming off a senior year that saw him average 9.1 yards per reception, Johnson has the physicality and enough upside in the passing game to potentially be a late-round target for a 49ers regime that has continually added to the backfield in part because of the increased injury risk that comes with playing the position.
But it would be a surprise if the Niners were aggressive in pursuing that kind of player.
Indeed, after using much of their capital in this draft to make what has to this point been a hugely successful trade for McCaffrey, this may be a year when the 49ers and Shanahan exercise patience and wait until the very end of the draft or until they can pick from the crop of UDFAs to provide insurance to an area of the team where the deck is already stacked.