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.
Three Niners who need to step up to contain Mahomes
Patrick Mahomes is the talk of the NFL, and why not? The second-year Kansas City signal-caller has turned in an historic performance over the first two weeks of the 2018 campaign, firing 10 touchdown strikes against zero turnovers while moving his unit up and down the field at will and leading the Chiefs to a league-high 80 points.
So, who needs to step up if the 49ers are to stand any chance of derailing Kansas City’s seemingly unstoppable 23-year-old quarterback? After watching DeForest Buckner and Richard Sherman compete at their typical All-Pro levels through the first two games, we’re operating under the assumption that they’ll keep it up in Week 3, so both players are exempt from this list. Instead, here are the top three defenders that need to take their game to the next level if the Niners are going to slow down Mahomes.
LB Reuben Foster
San Francisco’s resident human missile makes his highly anticipated return to the gridiron following his two-game suspension, and not a moment too soon.
Though he’s suited up for just 10 games since being drafted 31st overall in last year’s draft, Reuben Foster has already shown himself to be a rare breed: A ferocious hitter whose fearless style of play jumps off the screen to even the most casual of football observers. Foster brings the swagger, and it rubs off on his defensive mates. Need proof? Look at Week 1 against Carolina last season, and note the stark difference in the unit from when he was on the field to after he exited with an injury.
49er Faithful have salivated at the idea of seeing Foster and breakout rookie Fred Warner on the field at the same time, and San Francisco’s youthful linebackers will be put to the test in their first game together.
Foster is just as proficient dropping back in coverage as he is laying a punishing hit on the ballcarrier, and regardless of his assignment on Sunday, he’ll have a huge say in whether San Francisco can stop the explosive Mahomes.
DE Solomon Thomas
With DeForest Buckner almost certain to command significant attention from Kansas City’s offensive line, San Francisco will need someone other than just their stud defensive tackle to supply the heat (so far this season, Buckner has 3.5 sacks; the rest of the team has 1.5 sacks). Enter Solomon Thomas.
The third overall pick of last year’s draft, Thomas has just three career sacks and is still looking for his first of 2018 (though he did generate four quarterback hurries while playing on only 47 percent of San Francisco’s defensive snaps last week), and there’s no better time to accomplish that feat than during a matchup against a quarterback who’s picked defenses apart for two weeks and seemingly can’t miss his target.
While Thomas’ role has become a point of contention among fans and those who cover the team, the second-year man will undoubtedly see an uptick in snaps if he generates a bit more pressure, and that process began last week. But it’s one thing to hurry the quarterback; it’s quite another to make contact, affect passes and drop him behind the line of scrimmage, and if Thomas can do so, then San Francisco’s chances of forcing a mistake out of the young quarterback will grow exponentially.
Mahomes threw more touchdowns (six) than incompletions (five) last week, so knocking him around a bit will be imperative to disrupting his rhythm. And while it’s almost always the quarterback who scores the headlines, Mahomes’ blistering start to the season is due in no small part to his stout offensive line, which has permitted just two sacks through two games, despite the signal-caller already chucking 55 passes.
Thomas can lineup virtually anywhere on the defensive line, and he’ll need to bring is his A-game if he’s to fight his way through and around Pro Football Focus’ seventh-ranked unit through two games. Seeing as how Kansas City starting tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz have only permitted six pressures in two games, this could be the week for San Francisco to see what Thomas can do with some extensive playing time from the interior, where he’s at his best as a pass-rusher anyway.
CB Ahkello Witherspoon
Simply put, Ahkello Witherspoon struggled mightily in Week 2.
The second-year corner, who flashed enticing upside at the end of last season, couldn’t keep up with Detroit’s prolific passing attack, and he was victimized for a pair of touchdowns while yielding eight receptions for 99 yards and taking a pair of penalties on 13 targets.
Still, it’s important to remember that two games is an extremely small sample size, and he fared far better against the Vikings in Week 1 (71.0 grade from PFF) than he did against the Lions in Week 2 (27.9 grade).
The good news for Witherspoon? He’ll likely spend some time covering fourth-year man Chris Conley, who hasn’t exactly set the world on fire since being taken by Kansas City in the third round of the 2015 draft. Even with the ever-accurate Mahomes racking up 582 yards through the air, Conley has just three grabs for 32 yards and a touchdown in the first two games. He’s also lost a fumble.
If Witherspoon finds himself matched up against Tyreek Hill or Sammy Watkins, he’ll undoubtedly have his work cut out for him, but such a challenge would also give him every opportunity to show that last week was a fluke, a small blip on the radar of what has been a very promising start to his NFL career. With the second-year man coming off a subpar outing against the Lions and teams still shying away from Richard Sherman, Witherspoon is all but certain to be thrust into the limelight on Sunday.
If the Niners get the same confident, physical cornerback they saw at the end of last season, then Witherspoon should at least hold his own, even against the prolific Mahomes-led aerial attack, which comes into the Week 3 clash firing on all cylinders.
Podcast: Friday Mailbag
Podcast for Friday, September 21
- Opening up the listener mailbag
- Hopes and fears for Sunday in Kansas City
- Roles for LBs Reuben Foster, Fred Warner and Malcolm Smith
- Ahkello Witherspoon will bounce back
- Keys to the game vs Chiefs
Podcast: 49ers PFF Breakdown with Jeff Deeney
Podcast for Thursday, September 20
- Guest: Jeff Deeney, 49ers media correspondent for Pro Football Focus
- Injury report
- Reuben Foster activated
- Matt Breida, Deforest Buckner and Richard Sherman highlight 49ers early season grades
- Passing game could get right in Week 3 vs Kansas City defense
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