The 49ers’ third-leading pass catcher this season has worn red and gold for only four weeks.
Running back Shaun Draughn’s 22 receptions trail only starting wideouts Anquan Boldin (49) and Torrey Smith (23). That’s a reflection of the 49ers’ meager passing attack in 2015, but it also shows how quickly two newcomers to the starting lineup – Draughn and quarterback Blaine Gabbert – have coalesced.
“He’s awesome at catching the ball out of the backfield,” Gabbert gushed recently. “He’s made some tough catches in some tight windows. What really stands out is what he can do after the catch – breaking tackles, making guys miss, turning five-yard gains into 15-, 20-yard gains.”
An example came in the second quarter of Sunday’s game in Chicago with the 49ers facing third and 5. Draughn darted out of the backfield and planted to make a cut but nearly went to the ground as his right foot slid on the sandy Soldier Field surface.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
The stumble threw off the play’s timing and allowed two Chicago defenders to bear down on Gabbert. The quarterback waited until the last second for Draughn to return to the route and flipped him a pass, and Draughn ran for 26 yards. It was Gabbert’s longest pass play other than his 71-yard strike to Smith that ended the game in overtime.
He’s awesome at catching the ball out of the backfield. He’s made some tough catches in some tight windows. What really stands out is what he can do after the catch – breaking tackles, making guys miss, turning five-yard gains into 15-, 20-yard gains.
49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert on running back Shaun Draughn
“I thought that was a good snapshot for where they’re at,” offensive coordinator Geep Chryst said of the play. “(Gabbert) still trusted that (Draughn) wasn’t going to go down completely, and Blaine trusted enough to know that (he) can still get this throw off even though it was kind of under duress.”
Draughn will make his fifth straight start Sunday and his second straight against a former team. He’s been on eight rosters since entering the league in 2011.
Sunday’s opponent, the Browns, released him in October. He, his wife and two kids still were living in Cleveland when the 49ers called and asked if he could fly west for a workout. Now his family is in the Bay Area while he’s back to Cleveland.
Draughn hasn’t rushed for more than 58 yards this year, but he’s been the rare NFL running back who stays on the field for all three downs. In the Week 12 game against the Cardinals, he played every offensive snap, the only running back to do that this season.
100 Percent of offensive snaps 49ers running back Shaun Draughn played against the Cardinals in Week 12
Which begs the question: Why would the Browns, who are last in rushing offense and have just two rushing touchdowns, let go of such a productive back?
Browns safety Donte Whitner said Draughn probably should have received more chances. Cleveland mostly used him on special teams early in the season. The Browns’ leading rusher this year, Isaiah Crowell, ranks 42nd in the NFL.
“He’s looking really good on the football field, running the football, catching it out of the backfield, screens, kind of making us wish that we kept him,” Whitner said of Draughn.
Whitner, who played three season with the 49ers, said he grew close to the running back during the Browns’ Friday weightlifting sessions in training camp. He said he could tell Draughn liked to work hard, because the Friday sessions were voluntary.
He’s looking really good on the football field, running the football, catching it out of the backfield, screens, kind of making us wish that we kept him.
Browns safety Donte Whitner on former teammate Shaun Draughn
“He’s a guy that leads on that team,” Draughn said of Whitner. “ ... You have to look to those guys to see what they’re doing to be great. I definitely followed him into the weight room.”
Said Whitner: “You guys stole my lifting partner. We used to do arms together on Friday morning. But I’m happy for him. He’s a hard worker. He’s a very humble guy. He really doesn’t say too much. But he’s just a gamer.”
That work ethic allowed Draughn to catch on quickly with the 49ers after the team suffered a spate of injuries – Carlos Hyde’s foot, Reggie Bush’s knee, Mike Davis’ hand – in midseason.
After the 49ers called, Draughn was on the first morning flight to the Bay Area. He not only stayed late every day that week with position coach Tom Rathman to learn the team’s calls and blocking schemes, he and Gabbert developed chemistry on the practice field.
The result: The new guy has become the quarterback’s go-to guy.
“It wasn’t there overnight,” Gabbert said. “It was something that we’ve had to work diligently at, and I’d say we’re getting better at it on a daily basis.”