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Even though he's been in the league for two seasons, RB Carlos Hyde still remains a bit of an enigma. There are multiple reasons why Hyde is far from the every down mainstay the San Francisco 49ers had hoped he'd be at this point, most of which have nothing to do with his actual ability. Injuries, poor offensive line play and a lack of opportunities have all contributed to the frustrations, and questions still remain as to whether or not 2016 will be the year Hyde finally breaks out.
The 49ers selected Hyde with the 57th pick in the 2014 NFL draft with the expectation that he would be eased in initially before eventually taking over for veteran RB Frank Gore. The former Ohio State product looked the part in every way, as he was coming off a stellar season with the Buckeyes. Despite missing three games due to suspension, Hyde still put up 1,521 yards rushing on 208 carries, and found the end zone 16 times.
His rookie season was filled with ups and downs (as expected), but on the surface his numbers looked fine. In 14 games, Hyde carried the ball 83 times for 333 yards (4.0 yards per carry) and scored four touchdowns. He even caught 12 passes on 16 targets which was impressive considering how little the 49ers threw to their running backs under then head coach Jim Harbaugh. When you break those numbers down though, there were some signs of inconsistency. Hyde averaged under 4.0 yards per carry in seven games, and was actually under three in six of those. Also, as his workload increased, his production seemed to drop. In the four games Hyde received nine carries or more, he only averaged 2.7 yards per touch. His season was ultimately cut short by an injury that cost him the final two games.
Fast forward to 2015, and Hyde was handed the keys to the car after Gore left as a free agent. Now the focal point of the offense, the bruising runner destroyed the Minnesota Vikings in Week 1 to the tune of 26 carries for 168 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-3 victory. Things quickly went south from there however, as the 49ers and Hyde would lose their way. Over the next six games, Hyde struggled to the line of 89 carries for 302 yards and a single touchdown as his team crumbled around him going 1-5 over that stretch. Hyde was injured once more in an October 22nd loss to the Seattle Seahawks, and would not return for the rest of the season.
On the surface, Hyde's stats and overall production looked okay. He gained 470 yards on 115 carries in seven games, which would put him on a 16 game pace of 1,070 yards. But again, those numbers were misleading. Hyde averaged 3.6 yards or less in five of the seven games he played, and only scored once after Week 1. His 11 receptions produced 53 yards, which is an average of 4.8 per catch.
Even more troubling was the overall trend of Hyde doing less with more. He's received 10 or more carries in nine of his 21 career games, and averaged 3.6 yards or less six times. Overall, he had 138 carries for 533 yards and three touchdowns (3.86 yards per carry) in those nine contests. If you take out the Vikings game, it's 112 carries for 365 yards and one touchdown (3.25 yards per carry).
Even with the uneven play, Hyde is still looked at as a potential breakout candidate in 2016. Why? Well for starters, he's going to get an opportunity to be the bell cow in new head coach Chip Kelly's running back friendly system. Hyde doesn't have much in the way of proven commodities behind him, and should get the majority of the touches.
To get an idea of what you can expect volume wise from Hyde, look no further than RB LeSean McCoy's two seasons under Kelly with the Philadelphia Eagles. As the lead runner, McCoy saw 626 carries from 2013-14. Both years were consistent in terms of chances, as McCoy carried the ball 314 times in 2013 and 312 in 2014. McCoy was much better the first go around, averaging 5.1 yards per attempt and leading the league with 1,607 yards rushing. His production dipped the next year as he saw his yards per carry drop to 4.2, but still gained 1,319 yards. His reception total also decreased from 52 to 28 but much of that could have been due to the arrival of RB Darren Sproles in 2014.
So, if healthy, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Hyde could touch the ball 350 times this season for San Francisco, which would put him among the league leaders in that department. He'll get the opportunities and has the talent to be special, but can he stay on the field? Hyde has a bruising running style, and he rarely shies away from contact. It's a big part of the reason he's missed 11 of 32 games. It's difficult to believe he can survive an entire season taking the same approach. It'll be a tall task if he doesn't adjust.
Coming to his aid though will be what looks to be an improved offensive line, especially on the interior. The 49ers were plagued by poor guard and center play for much of 2015, but the additions of first-round pick G Joshua Garnett, free agent G Zane Beadles (who excels at zone blocking) and a healthy C Daniel Kilgore will go a long way in opening holes and allowing Hyde to work in space as opposed to getting hit two yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Only time will tell if Hyde can take the next step in terms of performance and actually staying in one piece, but I think it's safe to say the 49ers have to see progress this season. Kelly's going to be the coach for a while, and he needs capable runners to make his offense go. If Hyde doesn't prove to be that guy, look for San Francisco to be active in the running back market next offseason.
Al Sacco has covered the 49ers for various sites over the years. He's been a guest on multiple podcasts and had his work used by ESPN NFL Insiders and USA TODAY. Follow Al on Twitter @AlSacco49