We break down each of the San Francisco 49ers’ position groups heading into the 2018 NFL season, beginning with the Niners’ expensive cadre of running backs.
The San Francisco 49ers have one of the highest running-back payrolls in the NFL this season — a surprising fact, given that no RB on the Niners’ roster has rushed for 600 yards or scored six combined touchdowns in a single season.
Of course, the 49ers’ bloated cap figure at the position is partially due to the team’s extensive use of a fullback — a rarity in today’s NFL — who happens to cost twice the price of any other fullback in the league.
But even without the presence of Kyle Juszczyk on the roster, the 49ers’ 2018 positional spending is inflated due to the removal of lead back Carlos Hyde — still playing on his rookie deal — and the addition of Jerick McKinnon, with his high-cost four-year contract.
With “Juice” and “Jet” eating up the vast majority of the Niners’ backfield cap space, it’s no question who the starting fullback and halfback will be when the 49ers begin the regular season in September — but the remainder of the running back depth chart is up for grabs. Let’s take a look at each of the team’s running backs, beginning with the San Francisco 49ers’ two starters:
FB Kyle Juszczyk
Juszczyk was Pro Football Focus’ fourth-ranked fullback in 2017, after he took home top honors in 2016. However, what set Juszczyk apart from the rest of the league’s fullbacks last season was his versatility; he excelled in his “Offensive Weapon” role — ranking first in receiving and second in rushing — and was also PFF’s fourth-ranked run blocker. Surprisingly, however, Juszczyk was PFF’s lowest-rated pass blocker among all fullbacks in 2017.
Juszczyk will continue to be a major part of head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense in 2018, a year after logging the second-highest number of snaps among NFL fullbacks. However, Juice’s cap number jumps to nearly $6 million in 2019, and then nearly $7 million in 2020, so he could be asked to restructure his contract if his play is less than elite in 2018.
RB Jerick McKinnon
McKinnon was also near the top of PFF’s ranks last season, as his 84.5 grade was the eighth highest among players at his position. Of particular note, McKinnon was PFF’s ninth-rated pass blocker — a far cry from Hyde’s last-place ranking:
Watching #49ers running back Jerick McKinnon @JetMckinnon1 in pass protection with the #Vikings, he consistently handled much larger defenders, and really saved his QB a few times. JG's going to appreciate him back there. #49wz pic.twitter.com/nPhwEr1siQ
— Chris Wilson (@cgawilson) March 31, 2018
McKinnon has never played the role of feature back at the NFL level, but he will surely get his chance this season, given the amount of money 49ers general manager John Lynch was forced to pay the fifth-year back. Although he’s small by NFL feature-back standards, McKinnon is nearly identical in size to Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman, who scored double-digit rushing touchdowns in both of his seasons under Shanahan.
RB Matt Breida
After starting off slow, running back Matt Breida — signed as an undrafted free agent last year — developed into a respectable counterpart to Hyde by the end of the season. Breida received double-digit carries in four of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo‘s five starts, which helped the rookie finish the season with 465 rushing yards.
Multiple times throughout the season, Breida was a shoestring tackle away from breaking off a long run with his breakaway speed, and will need to demonstrate the ability to absorb contact and stay on his feet as his career progresses. Breida was also a non-factor in the passing game, which isn’t surprising given his limited action as a pass-catcher in college. Improvements as a receiver and blocker will be a necessity if Breida expects to be a long-term change-of-pace back at the NFL level.
Going into the 2018 season, Breida has a stronghold on the team’s backup running back spot, which could potentially turn into a very important role, depending on McKinnon’s durability. Given Breida’s potential, his late-season development last year, and his affordable contract, the second-year back is a near-lock to make the 49ers’ final roster.
RB Joe Williams
The run-up to the 2018 regular season is make-or break time for running back Joe Williams — perhaps not just for his future in red and gold, but potentially for his future in the NFL. After a drama-filled college career, the running back was off most teams’ draft boards in 2017 — including San Francisco’s — until Shanahan fell in love with him, and talked Lynch into moving up 22 spots to select Williams in the fourth round of the draft.
Unfortunately, Williams had a less-than-impressive preseason, and was beat out by Breida for the No. 2 running back role. After sustaining an ankle injury that wasn’t necessarily considered season-ending, the 49ers decided to place Williams on injured reserve, essentially red-shirting him for the year.
Given the draft capital they spent on Williams — and the preference they give to “their guys” — Shanahan and Lynch will do everything they can to keep Williams on the roster, but he will need to prove his worth over the next three months. Williams certainly has the physical measurables to be a running back in the league, and could be an exciting portion of a potential three-man rushing attack.
RB/ST Raheem Mostert
While Raheem Mostert is officially listed as a running back, he was the 49ers’ special-teams ace in 2017, before a Week-11 knee injury prematurely ended his season. Mostert — with just seven carries over his three-year career — isn’t expected to play a role on offense outside of emergency situations, although he had a fairly impressive preseason last year as a runner.
Unfortunately for Mostert, his immediate future with the team is somewhat outside of his control, as his likelihood of landing a roster spot is dependent on the performance of his fellow running backs and special-teamers. Although he was a key contributor in 2017, his lack of value outside of special teams makes him susceptible to a late preseason release if the team thinks they can get similar performance from a player who can also provide value on the offensive or defensive side of the ball. Still, given the way he played in 2017, Mostert will more likely than not find himself on the 49ers’ final roster.
RB Jeremy McNichols
Running back Jeremy McNichols spent the majority of the 2017 season on the 49ers’ practice squad, before he was activated for special-teams duty after Mostert’s injury. A 2017 fifth-round draft pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mostert’s tumultuous preseason — which led to his release — was well documented on HBO’s television series, Hard Knocks.
While McNichols wasn’t ready for prime time in 2017, he’s a talented dual-threat back who was productive in both the running and passing game in college. The 49ers hope that the last year spent maturing and learning the game will help McNichols compete for the team’s No. 3 running back role.
RB Jeffrey Wilson
The 49ers had their eyes on running back Jeffrey Wilson prior to the draft, as they invited the North Texas standout to a workout with the team in Santa Clara. After Wilson went undrafted, the Niners signed him to a free-agent contract. In 2017, the running back scored 16 touchdowns in 11 games before missing the remainder of the season due to a foot injury. Wilson, who is also a receiving threat out of the backfield, will likely see a lot of late-game action this preseason in his quest for one of the final spots on the 49ers’ roster.
FB Malcolm Johnson
Fullback Malcolm Johnson — a converted college tight end and wide receiver — rounds out the 49ers’ group of running backs. A former sixth-round draft pick in 2015, Johnson saw action in 19 games before he was released by the Cleveland Browns mid-way through his sophomore season. Johnson spent the remainder of 2016 on the Seattle Seahawks’ practice squad before the team placed him on injured reserve and then released him last offseason. Although the Mississippi State product is extremely unlikely to make the 49ers’ final roster, Johnson should get extended playing time during the preseason lead-blocking for his fellow running backs.
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