Kyle Shanahan didn’t expect to add a veteran running back in free agency, particularly one who would fit seamlessly into his offense like former Atlanta Falcon Tevin Coleman.
“It was just the way the market worked out,” the 49ers coach said Tuesday at the owners meetings.
Coleman on March 13 agreed to a modest two-year, $8.5 million contract with San Francisco after logging 1,076 yards from scrimmage in 2018 while averaging more than nine touchdowns over the past three seasons. He’s expected to have a prominent role like he did in Atlanta when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016.
“We were extremely fortunate to end up with Tevin,” Shanahan said. “We didn’t go into this thinking we need to get a fourth running back to plan this attack. We were gonna add other spots on the roster that we needed to address and Tevin, it just made sense for our team the way it unfolded.”
The 49ers pieced together the NFL’s 13th-ranked rushing offense last season despite being without expected starter Jerick McKinnon, who tore his ACL on Sept. 1 after signing a four-year, $30 million contract. Former undrafted rookie Matt Breida wound up the team’s top rusher and was among the league’s leaders in yards per carry for the majority of the season.
But recurring ankle injuries plagued Breida and he missed the final two games — his first missed action since high school.
The 49ers with Coleman in the mix could assemble a multi-faceted running attack similar to what Shanahan had with the Falcons when Coleman worked in tandem with standout Devonta Freeman en route to the Super Bowl following the 2016 campaign.
However, with Coleman, McKinnon, Breida and Raheem Mostert — a group that averages 200 pounds — the 49ers are still without a traditional power running back that excels in short-yardage situations. It’s notable because the team finished dead last in red-zone efficiency and scored the third-fewest rushing touchdowns (seven).
Shanahan doesn’t expect that to be a problem.
“What is a short-yardage power back? Is that just the biggest guy possible? Is it the Nigerian Nightmare (Christian Okoye)? Is that the only way? It doesn’t have to always be that way,” he said. “I think Frank Gore is an unbelievable short-yardage back, and is he a real big guy? No, he’s a normal back. So I think our guys can be similar to that.
“We do have some smaller guys, but Jet McKinnon is bigger than people think. Tevin Coleman is bigger than people think. I don’t consider them small backs. I think they’re normal sized. They’re not huge, but that’s how NFL backs are built.”
Shanahan thinks Matthews has improved, but numbers down
There’s been a stark drop in production from new receiver Jordan Matthews in recent seasons. He averaged 23 catches and 291 yards the past two seasons after logging three straight 800-yard campaigns and 19 touchdowns in his first three years.
The newcomer, who signed a one-year, $3 million contract March 14, is the team’s most accomplished receiver on the stat sheet. Yet despite paltry production recently, Shanahan still saw a receiver who was improving and worth taking a small chance on.
“He’s played a lot. We wanted to get a veteran into our group to add some competition,” Shanahan said. “We played with a lot of young guys. We lost Pierre (Garçon), so that was one veteran that we don’t have anymore.
“He’s had some pressure in places by being a high draft pick, having to be relied on as a No. 1, No. 2. He’s bounced around a little in this league. I think he’s gotten better each year in this league just studying him, and I think his skill set adds something to our group. He’s a bigger receiver who has good hands, very smart receiver and he also can run.”
Matthews was a highly touted prospect coming out of Vanderbilt in the 2014 draft. He went in the second round to the Philadelphia Eagles and appeared to be a building block after three productive seasons. He was traded to Buffalo in 2017 with a third-round draft pick for cornerback Ronald Darby and has struggled with injuries since.
Shanahan believes Matthews could be a key contributor to a receiving corps that already includes Dante Pettis, Marquise Goodwin, Trent Taylor and Kendrick Bourne.
“Numbers have to do with someone calling a play for you, being open in zone, the quarterback hitting you,” Shanahan said. “In terms of just route running, catching the ball, getting up the field, what you do after the catch, how you play the game. I have enjoyed watching him over the years, and I do think he’s gotten better.”