49ers Running Back Room Is At An Major Crossroads

September 22, 2022
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What can the 49ers do to compensate for the loss of three main pieces in the backfield? Why do the 49ers struggle with keeping their backs healthy? Also, will we see more of this player in the backfield to help lessen the blow of the running back losses?

Before the season, position-wise, the 49ers running backs were looked at to be a strength of the team. The 49ers had five running backs that appeared to be key contributors. The 49ers running backs were Elijah Mitchell, Trey Sermon, Jeff Wilson Jr, JaMychal Hasty and Jordan Mason.

Trey Sermon was cut and picked up by the Eagles. JaMychal Hasty was let go and picked up by the Jaguars. Elijah Mitchell got injured in Week One and is supposed to miss eight-to-ten weeks. Then finally, Tyrion Davis Price was injured against the Seahawks with a high ankle sprain and is out for a while as well. A few key injuries can turn a strength into a weakness. 

Entering Week Three, the running back rotation is now Jeff Wilson Jr, Marlon Mack, undrafted rookie free agent Jordan Mason and recently signed to the practice squad, former 49er Tevin Coleman.

49ers And Injured Running Backs

All too common in the Shanahan era, running backs go down to injuries forcing the 49ers to scramble. It begs the question, why does San Francisco struggle with keeping running backs healthy?

Two reasons. The first reason is the Shanahan outside zone system. To play as a running back for Kyle Shanahan, one has to be tough. Shanahan doesn’t like running backs who “dance” in the backfield. He wants you to hit the hole fast with a heightened level of aggression.

Recently cut former 2021 third-round pick Trey Sermon learned this the hard way. He was a dancer. He didn’t have the level of aggression needed to succeed in the offense. Therefore he found himself off the roster.

One player who was the opposite of Sermon was undrafted rookie Jordan Mason. Mason, out of Georgia Tech made the team in part of his preseason performances and also because of how hard and fast he played.

Former 1000-yard rusher Marlon Mack showed this in the preseason for the Houston Texans. Then, of course, Shanahan’s favorite Jeff Wilson Jr showed this as well last week against the Seattle Seahawks. You have to run with reckless abandon in this scheme.

The second reason is that the running back position has a high turnover and injury rate. Teams shuffle through running backs year-to-year and sometimes week-to-week. Throughout the NFL, only a select few get big-long term contracts. Now, why is this? It’s because it’s a compromising position that leads to more injuries than other offensive positions.

49ers Next Steps

Although the 49ers are down two running backs, the 49ers are averaging 182.5 yards per game. That ranks fourth in the NFL. The leading rusher for the 49ers is Jeff Wilson Jr (106 yards). However, one player who became a revelation last year is second on the team with 105 yards. That player? Deebo Samuel.

Expect a lot of Deebo Samuel in the backfield. On the season, he currently has 12 rushes for 105 yards (8.75 yards per carry). Now, he’s still going to play a lot at wide receiver, but his undeniable talent at running back gives the 49ers an option no other team in the league has. He’s one of a kind.

With Jimmy Garoppolo back under center, the 49ers may not run the ball as much as they did under Lance. Now, this doesn’t mean Shanahan is going to turn into Andy Reid and start throwing the ball 40 times a game. San Francisco will still run the ball a ton, which gives opportunities for Deebo to play in the backfield.

So far this season, Deebo is getting six carries per game. When looking back at his 2021 season, Deebo did not really play a part in the backfield until the middle of the season.

Before Week Ten last season, Deebo had six total carries. In the eight games after the switch, he had 53, averaging 6.6 carries per game. He’s right on that track to start this season. Will that now bump up to 8-10 rushes per game? That might be pushing it, but depending on game situations, and how effective he is, a few more carries seem likely to happen.

49ers Running Back Options Behind Jeff Wilson JR

Look for Jordan Mason to get his first carries in the NFL this Sunday night against the Denver Broncos. Marlon Mack is in the fold. Mack, who in the preseason against the 49ers ran for 55 yards on ten attempts, impressed Shanahan enough that the team signed him after Mitchell’s injury.

He’s now running back three. Mack is a shifty back who is in his second year back after an Achilles tear cost him to miss virtually all of his 2020 season. Unknown what we can expect from him, but he’s now an option that will dress on game days that Kyle Shanahan can try and work his magic with.

Also, it was reported that the 49ers had signed former 49er, Tevin Coleman, to the team’s practice squad. Coleman, who was in San Francisco from 2019 to 2020, is a player who has ties to Kyle Shanahan from his days in Atlanta.