49ers Running Backs: Finding Fantasy Value In The Niners’ Backfield

June 11, 2022
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Which RB on San Francisco’s roster is the late-round sleeper to target during your fantasy football drafts? Scott Engel joins NinersEmpire.com to break down the 49ers’ 2022 backfield.

Updated June 27, 2022

Wise fantasy football owners know to invest their premium draft capital far away from the San Francisco 49ers’ backfield. The 49ers are going to run the ball — a ton — but which running back on the Niners’ roster will see enough touches to be fantasy-relevant? Head coach Kyle Shanahan has historically utilized committees at running back, which often change on a weekly basis. While his approach frustrates fantasy football enthusiasts, Shanahan only cares about what is best for his real football team.

Utilizing a rotation of running backs gives a team the ability to accomplish a few goals: It keeps each RB fresh. Defenses have to deal with different styles of runners, and similar to fantasy owners, they rarely know which running back will carry most of the load. The RBs are less susceptible to injury when they are not overworked. And if the running game is effective, opposing defenses can tire and become worn down during the latter portion of the game, which is key in Shanahan’s offensive scheme.

How Will The 49ers’ Running Back Situation Shake Out This Season?

The 49ers had a clear plan at the running back position entering last season, with record-breaking speedster Raheem Mostert leading the team’s backfield attack; Two plays later, Mostert’s career in San Francisco was over. By the end of the season, the Niners’ rushing leader was a late-round rookie, and their best running back was a wide receiver. With the understanding that the situation will be fluid, what are the 49ers’ plan for their running game in 2022?

49ers Draft A Bruising Backfield Partner For Elijah Mitchell

Roster depth at running back is important, as the 49ers demonstrated by dealing with injury problems throughout last season despite appearing to be deep at the position when the year began. Surprisingly, fifth-round rookie RB Elijah Mitchell emerged as the lead running back for the Niners — until Shanahan turned to wide receiver Deebo Samuel during the second half of the season, which sent San Francisco on a deep playoff run.

Durability was an issue for Mitchell and every other running back on the team’s 2021 roster. While he may be slated to begin the season as the starting running back, Mitchell will face stiff competition for carries. The 49ers head into the 2022 campaign with numerous options at the position, so competition for both playing time and roster positioning will be something for fans to watch over the coming months.9ers

Mitchell is still expected to be one of the top backs on the team after his eye-opening 200-carry rookie season. But much to the shock of analysts and fans alike, the 49ers selected LSU running back Tyrion Davis-Price in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Although the Niners’ questionable pick received a failing grade throughout the league, all post-draft analysis becomes meaningless once games begin.

One of the team’s biggest disappointments from last year’s draft, fellow third-round running back Trey Sermon, needs to deliver a considerably better performance to avoid “bust” status. Fan-favorite Jeff Wilson is back, as is complementary-type JaMycal Hasty. UDFA Jordan Mason, recipient of vast amounts of praise and sudden high expectations, will also attempt to cement a position on the roster in what has become a packed running back room. 

Mitchell can be shifty and explosive at times, but he leaves a lot of yards on the field. And as we saw last year, he is not the bell cow of a run-heavy team, which is likely the 49ers’ rationalization for drafting Davis-Price. Ideally, the newcomer will pair with Mitchell as a hard inside runner with experience in a somewhat-similar rushing scheme. Davis-Price is a thumper with surprising burst, and may emerge as the preferred short-yardage and goal-line back for the Niners. The team needs to improve in short-yardage situations in 2022, and play-calling aside, Davis-Price fits the bill. 

There will be at least one additional running back in the mix with Mitchell and Davis-Price. That player could be Wilson, a trusted and tenured player who has been versatile when healthy. He has demonstrated the ability to fill a variety of roles, from starter to goal-line specialist to change-of-pace back. Sermon, however, will be given every opportunity to become the third running back on the depth chart if he shows promise during training camp and the preseason.

Don’t Forget About Trey Sermon

Sermon was drafted to be the 49ers’ version of a bell-cow running back, and thus, is the wild card of the Niners’ backfield. If he can emerge as a key contributor this season, the 49ers will have a very strong committee to challenge opposing defenses on a consistent basis. The best running back on the roster — WR Deebo Samuel — will still receive his fair share of backfield touches, but nowhere near the split he saw during the latter half of the 2021 season. His fellow speedy wide receivers, as well as tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk, are all willing and capable of carrying the ball, so Shanahan should have enough bodies to do what he wants to do on offense: run the football.

With Trey Lance projected to be the starting quarterback this season, expect Shanahan to add additional wrinkles to the team’s rushing attack. A strong running game is necessary to ease pressure on the young quarterback, and the Niners’ RBs should benefit from the addition of an improved RPO attack. At a minimum, the threat of Lance as a runner will hopefully keep defenders on their heels.

Projecting the 49ers’ 2022 backfield

Mitchell and Davis-Price will likely emerge as the top two running backs for the 49ers this season, but Sermon will be the one to watch over the summer. With a strong training camp, he could push the top two backs for additional reps and a more prominent role. If Sermon falters again, Wilson has proven to be a reliable third RB. Hasty may be an afterthought as more of a “scatback” type, and Mason will have to prove his worth with pads on before receiving any serious consideration.

Injuries occur, so Sermon should remain on the radar as a viable option. With any injury to Mitchell or Davis-Price, Sermon could be thrust into a heavier role or even a starting spot at a moment’s notice. Even after a lost rookie season, Sermon could easily emerge as a significant contributor for San Francisco in 2022. 

Final Running Back Position Battle Prediction: Mitchell and Davis-Price will share the main bulk of the RB carries in Shanahan’s preferred 60/30 split, with Sermon receiving the remaining touches as the primary backup. Wilson will be suited up on the sideline as further depth, and either Hasty or Mason will remain in the organization in some capacity in case of injury. As star WR-turned-RB Deebo Samuel demonstrated last year, a team can never have enough depth at running back, and the San Francisco 49ers are no exception. 

Thanks to Scott for his take on the 49ers’ 2022 backfield. Give inaugural FSWA Hall-of-Famer Scott Engel a follow on Twitter and check out his work featured at TheGameDay.com.