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How the 49ers running back rotation might look in 2023

We know Christian McCaffrey will be the featured back. But a look at Shanahan’s history will give us an idea about how the stable of backs will be used this season

NFC Divisional Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Regarding positional importance in a Kyle Shanahan offense, running back ranks among the top. The 49ers running game has finished in the top ten in rushing yards and attempts in three of the last four seasons. It’s so essential that the 49ers went out and acquired all-pro running back Christian McCaffrey to give it a featured player at the position. That’s something Shanahan hasn’t had with the 49ers. So, how’s he going to manage the position in 2023?

Since Shanahan took the helm in 2017, the 49ers have primarily gone by committee at running back. In the first four seasons under Shanahan, the 49ers had at least two running backs with at least a quarter of the position group's rushing attempts.

The last two seasons have been a different story, with injuries in 2021 forcing the 49ers to use wide receiver Deebo Samuel as running back and the acquisition of McCaffrey skewing the shares in 2022.

Before acquiring McCaffrey, Jeff Wilson had more than 70 percent of the running back attempts after Elijah Mitchell’s injury in Week 1. The 49ers then traded Wilson after acquiring McCaffrey, who shared touches with Mitchell, Jordan Mason, and Tyrion Davis-Price. McCaffrey saw 58.67 percent of the attempts out of the five (Wilson had 11 rushing attempts in two games with McCaffrey), a share that isn’t seen much in a Shanahan offense.

Even without being on the 49ers for their first six games, McCaffrey’s 41.3 percent of attempts led all running backs for the entirety of the 2022 season. That share is the fourth-highest percentage of carries for a running back in a season under Shanahan behind Mitchell in 2021 (59.48), Matt Breida in 2018 (42.03), and Carlos Hyde in 2017 (68.38).

McCaffrey is going to get his rushing attempts in 2023, but how many? As mentioned, Shanahan has yet to have a feature back like McCaffrey with the 49ers. Looking at some of Shanahan’s jobs in the past provides insight into what could be McCaffrey’s usage this upcoming season.

In his last season with Washington in 2013, Shanahan had Alfred Morris take 78.41 percent of touches out of the backfield – although that number drops to 63.01 percent with Robert Griffin’s rushing attempts added to Washington’s backfield, who finished second on that team with 86 rushing attempts.

Without a mobile quarterback in Atlanta, Shanahan had Devonta Freeman take 69.37 percent of rushing attempts in 2015, but with the emergence of Tevin Coleman, that number dropped to 59.89 percent in 2016, right around what McCaffrey saw after the October trade.

The magic number for McCaffrey in 2023 will likely be around 55-65 percent of the attempts if Shanahan’s past has anything to say about it. That leaves 35-45 percent of touches between Mitchell, Mason, and Davis-Price.

Mitchell should be the favorite to get the most touches of the three, but injuries have caused him to miss about half of the games in his career. Mitchell’s injury in 2022 opened the door for Mason, who in the last eight games of 2022, averaged nearly six yards per attempt on 41 attempts. And while Davis-Price only played in six games, he’s bound to get a good look over the next few months before the season.