49ers Position Battle Breakdown and Analysis: Running Backs

July 6, 2022
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Scott Engel of The Game Day drops by to discuss the running back competition in the San Francisco 49ers’ backfield.

Fantasy football players can certainly tell you that they would rather not invest in the San Francisco 49ers’ backfield. Kyle Shanahan has historically utilized committees at the running back position. While the approach does frustrate fantasy football enthusiasts, Shanahan only cares about what works best for his real team.

Utilizing a rotation of running backs attempts to accomplish a few goals. It keeps the RBs fresh. Defenses have to deal with different styles of runners. The RBs are less susceptible to injuries when they are not overworked. Defenses can also be worn down during the latter portions of the game. 

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

A Bruising Backfield Partner for Elijah Mitchell Arrives

Roster depth at running back is important over the course of a season, as the 49ers dealt with for much of the 2021 NFL season despite appearing to be deep enough at the beginning of the year. It may have been a rare feat under Shanahan last year, Elijah Mitchell emerged as the clear lead running back for the Niners. 

As we well know, though, durability was also an issue for Mitchell. So it is unlikely that he will once again be the unquestioned featured runner again in 2022. The 49ers will be heading into the 2022 campaign with good numbers at running back, and we will see a few guys compete for quality playing time and even to make the roster. 

Mitchell will still be one of the top ball carriers on the team after his eye-opening rookie season. Much to the surprise of many onlookers, but obviously by design in the Shanahan mold, the 49ers selected LSU’s Tyrion Davis-Price in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Last season’s big disappointment, Trey Sermon, will try to deliver a better training camp performance this year. Veteran Jeff Wilson Jr. is back, as is complementary-type JaMycal Hasty. Undrafted rookie Jordan Mason will also attempt to stick on the roster. 

Mitchell can be explosive, but as we saw last year, it is likely better to not lean on him to be the axis of the running game. That is why Davis-Price was drafted. Ideally, he can pair with Mitchell as a pure inside runner. Davis-Price is a classic thumper who may also emerge as the preferred short-yardage runner and goal-line back for the Niners. The team was looking to improve in situations where they needed to battle for short yardage, and Davis-Price fits the bill. 

As we have seen before, there will be a third RB in the mix with Mitchell and Davis-Price. That could be Wilson, a trusted and tenured player who has been versatile when healthy. He has operated as a goal-line specialist at times and a change of pace runner. Sermon, however, can conceivably become the third running back on the depth chart if he does prove to be more effective in training camp and the preseason. The real competition for reps should be behind Mitchell and Davis-Price. 

Don’t Forget About Trey Sermon

That is where Sermon is the wild card. If he can emerge as a key contributor this season, the 49ers can have a very strong committee that will challenge defenses consistently. Of course, Deebo Samuel will also certainly be part of the ball-carrying crew, but his attempts can be more timely and less predictable this season. He won’t have to carry as often because the Niners will have quality depth and can simply turn to Samuel as an extra weapon, rather than leaning on him more because of attrition. 

With Trey Lance projected to be the starting QB this season, the running game will be an even more essential part of the offense. Not only will the RBs have to ease pressure on a young quarterback, but they will also benefit from working with Lance in a potentially improved RPO attack. The threat of Lance himself taking off at any time further puts defenders on their heels. 

We should be expecting Mitchell and Davis-Price to emerge as the top two running backs for the 49ers this season. Sermon will be the one to watch in the summer, though. With a strong training camp, it is not out of the question he can push the other two for some reps. If he falters again, Wilson can be reliable as a third RB. We know that already. Hasty may be an afterthought. He is more of s scatback type. 

Injuries can change the outlook at any time, though. So we have to keep Sermon on the radar. With any injury to either Mitchell or Davis-Price, Sermon could be pressed into a heavier role or even a starting spot at any time. So even after a lost first season, Sermon could re-emerge as a significant contributor for San Francisco in 2022. 

Scott’s Game Day Position Battle Prediction: Mitchell and Davis-Price will share the main bulk of the carries. Sermon will operate as the primary backup while getting a few touches per game. Wilson will be around for further depth. As we saw last year, there can never be enough depth at running back.