San Francisco 49ers

49ers need running backs to join Carlos Hyde in up-tempo attack

Utah running back Devontae Booker (23) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Arizona, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in Tucson, Ariz.
Utah running back Devontae Booker (23) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Arizona, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in Tucson, Ariz. AP

The scouting combine begins next week, and the 49ers will be busy. They are projected to have a league-high 12 picks and could use help at just about every position. Over the next week and a half, we’ll look at every spot on the team as well as which college prospects might fit with the 49ers.

Running back

Need level: Moderate

Under contract for 2016: Mike Davis, Kendall Gaskins, DuJuan Harris, Jarryd Hayne, Carlos Hyde, Bruce Miller (fullback)

THE SITUATION

Carlos Hyde is perhaps the 49ers’ top offensive weapon and he’s shown he can be a formidable lead runner. He’s also shown he needs help. He missed two games in 2014 as Frank Gore’s backup and only played in seven games last season because of a foot injury that ultimately required surgery.

That Hyde doesn’t shy away from contact is admirable, but it’s hard to see him lasting through a 16-game season with that style unless the 49ers lighten his load. New coach Chip Kelly likely will do that. His offenses run the ball a lot – the Eagles were among the top seven teams in rushing attempts in 2013 and 2014 – but he typically spreads those runs among three tailbacks in his up-tempo offense. The question for the 49ers: Who else is going to run the ball in 2016 besides Hyde?

Two candidates from last season, Reggie Bush and Shaun Draughn, are scheduled for free agency. Bush was lightly used in the preseason but still had only eight carries before going on injured reserve. Draughn was a fast learner and a hard runner when he was signed in November, and he also has special teams value. But he never rushed for more than 51 yards in a game and lacks explosiveness.

Other options include last year’s fourth-round pick, Mike Davis, who didn’t show any kick until the final game of the season; DuJuan Harris, whose quick feet could make him a nice change-of-pace option in Kelly’s system; and Aussie Jarryd Hayne. It will be interesting if Kelly can make better use of Hayne’s obvious, but unrefined, talents than Jim Tomsula did. Fullback Bruce Miller has the misfortune of playing for a head coach that didn’t have a fullback on his roster in three seasons in Philadelphia.

THE 2016 CLASS

Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State: He’s got a great combination of power and balance and has the size (225 pounds) to be an every-down back in the NFL. Elliott is projected to go in the middle of the first round, which means the 49ers are unlikely to be in play for him.

Derrick Henry, Alabama: He’s a huge (6-foot-3, 242 pounds) runner who on the surface doesn’t seem suited for Kelly’s offense. Still, he has good cut-back ability and most of his carries came out of the shotgun. Henry could be an inspired choice if Kelly wants to add more power to his attack. (Kelly’s offensive coordinator, Curtis Modkins, and running backs coach, Tom Rathman, are well-versed in power running.) Henry is expected to be taken early in the second round.

Devontae Booker, Utah: The former Grant High School and American River College standout is a smaller version (212 pounds) of Elliott. He also has nice balance and the ability to find the right running lanes. He’s better than average in pass protection, is a good pass catcher and was a team captain last season.

Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech: Dixon never goes out of bounds on his own and seems to relish giving cornerbacks and safeties a final hit. In that way, he’d be a nice compliment to Hyde. Hyde could get a break when Dixon is in the game, but defenses wouldn’t. Dixon scored 87 touchdowns in four seasons. He’s expected to be a mid-round pick.

Tyler Ervin, San Jose State: Defenses that faced the Spartans in 2015 knew they had to Ervin, but few could do it. That includes Auburn, which gave up 160 yards to Ervin at home, and Fresno State, which allowed Ervin to rush for 300 yards. Ervin is only 192 pounds, but he did most of his work between the tackles and usually pushed the pile. He hits the hole with power, gets up to top speed quickly and would seem to be a good fit in a zone-blocking offense. He is expected to be a mid-round pick.

MONDAY: The 49ers’ options at quarterback.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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