San Francisco 49ers

49ers Training Camp Preview: A speedy, new-look group of running backs

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Enhancements include banners of former 49ers greats and a ring of honor on the stadium's west side.
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Enhancements include banners of former 49ers greats and a ring of honor on the stadium's west side.

The NFL might be a pass-heavy league, but that hasn’t forced Kyle Shanahan to abandon his value on running backs within the 49ers offense. Shanahan uses more multiple-running back formations than anyone, thanks to multidimensional fullback Kyle Juszczyk. And play action is a foundational principle to his passing game.

So with training camp beginning later this week, let’s take a look at where things stand with San Francisco’s running back group that could look dramatically different in 2019.

Defining story line: Speed, speed and more speed

The 49ers could have four halfbacks that ran near a 4.40 in the 40-yard dash before entering the NFL: Jerick McKinnon (4.41), Tevin Coleman (4.39), Matt Breida (4.38) and Raheem Mostert (4.34). That foursome could make the fastest running back group in the NFL, giving the 49ers a dynamic few other teams could replicate.

McKinnon was signed away from the Vikings in 2018 largely because of his athleticism. His 40-yard dash ranked in the 89th percentile among running backs, while his vertical (40.5 inches) and broad jump (132 inches) ranked in the 95th and 97th percentile, respectively. But it remains to be seen how much of that juice he’ll have following his ACL tear suffered a week before the 2018 season opener. He, along with Coleman, is considered a good receiver out of the backfield and was expected to be a prominent weapon in the passing game before going down last summer.

McKinnon signed a four-year, $30 million contract before the injury, becoming one of the highest paid running backs in football. The agreement raised eyebrows given the way the position has been devalued around the league. Still, Shanahan believed McKinnon was worth the money given the role he would play in the passing game. He was one of Jimmy Garoppolo’s most frequent targets in training camp.

McKinnon didn’t participate in the offseason program while recovering from the knee injury. Shanahan has been optimistic McKinnon will be fully cleared at some point early in training camp, though there’s a good chance the 49ers take things slowly in August before ramping up his work for Week 1.

Coleman fell into the 49ers’ lap in free agency. The former Falcon elected to rejoin Shanahan in San Francisco on a two-year, $10 million pact that may be the team’s best value addition of the spring. He averaged 981 yards from scrimmage and over nine touchdowns the past three seasons. San Francisco hasn’t had a player score nine touchdowns since Carlos Hyde in 2016.

Adding Coleman improves the 49ers’ depth after dealing with a slew of injuries to running backs last season. McKinnon was out for the year, Breida dealt with constant ankle issues (while still averaging 5.3 yards per carry) and Mostert broke his arm, capping a four-game stretch in which he averaged 8.9 yards per rush. The injuries led to Alfred Morris and undrafted rookie Jeff Wilson Jr. starting games, which is not what Shanahan envisioned entering training camp last summer.

Projected starters

The 49ers seem likely to go with a running-back-by-committee approach, given their depth. Coleman could become the primary starter, though McKinnon and Breida will be in the mix. Juszczyk was second among the team’s skill position players in snaps played in 2018 (663) behind only tight end George Kittle. Juszczyk should figure prominently into the offense again after making the Pro Bowl the past two seasons.

“I like having the fullback because the only time you can really dictate the game on offense,” Shanahan said in March. “If you put three receivers out there, then they can run certain blitzes and stunts where you cannot run the ball. And they can force you to pass and they can force you to do things. When you have a fullback out there, it doesn’t matter how many guys they have in the box, which is nice because if they put a lot of guys in the box it makes it easier to throw.”

Shanahan has typically kept three halfbacks on the roster in his two seasons with the 49ers. Mostert’s ability on special teams might force him to switch things up and keep four, which could impact another position during final cuts.

Sleeper(s) to watch

Knowledgeable fans should have an issue with Breida being tabbed a “sleeper,” but the moniker might be appropriate given where he could fall on the depth chart if McKinnon comes back healthy. Breida would be third in the hierarchy despite rushing for 814 yards last season while becoming more reliable as a pass catcher – he caught 87.1 percent of his targets.

Mostert could also qualify, though it would likely take an injury from someone else to get significant carries. His 12-carry, 87-yard performance in the Monday night loss against Green Bay helped keep the 49ers were in that game. But Mostert’s value lies mostly in his work in kickoff coverage and as a gunner on the punt team.

There’s also a chance receiver Jalen Hurd, a third-round pick in April, could get some carries, particularly around the goal line. He scored 17 rushing touchdowns in two seasons as a running back at Tennessee before transferring to Baylor to play wideout. Perhaps Hurd (6-5, 226) could be the power back in the red zone to complement the speedsters the 49ers have lacked since Hyde’s departure.

Projected depth chart

Halfback

Tevin Coleman

Jerick McKinnon

Matt Breida

Raheem Mostert

Jeff Wilson Jr.

Austin Walter

Fullback

Kyle Juszczyk

Wilson and Walter will likely carry the load during the preseason to keep the other players fresh for Week 1. Both are candidates for the practice squad after getting the majority of reps during the offseason program due to injuries to McKinnon (ACL recovery), Mostert (fractured arm) and Breida (partially torn pectoral). The 49ers are optimistic those three players will be fully healthy for the regular season.

49ers training camp previews

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