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Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

49ers end-of-season grades: Running Backs

Rohan Chakravarthi
Feb 15, 2023 at 12:00 PM--

After grading the quarterbacks to begin the end-of-season-grades series, it's time to evaluate the San Francisco 49ers running backs this season, from the rookies to the veterans, and of course, the midseason acquisition: Christian McCaffrey.

Despite having four healthy running backs going into the offseason, San Francisco elected to draft LSU Tigers tailback Tyrion Davis-Price in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft before signing undrafted free agent Jordan Mason, who ended up beating his draft counterpart for a role on the depth chart.

Going forward, the 49ers will have an intriguing running back room of McCaffrey, Elijah Mitchell, and the two 2022 rookies, but let's first evaluate the position group for their performances in 2022.

Christian McCaffrey

Christian McCaffrey single-handedly uplifts the grade for the running back room, as he transformed the 49ers offense upon his arrival from the Carolina Panthers in a midseason trade.

McCaffrey was a good running back, rushing for 746 yards and six touchdowns on 4.7 yards per carry during his time in San Francisco, while not missing a single game, despite facing some injury woes.

But, his biggest contributions came in the receiving game, where McCaffrey caught 52 passes for 464 yards and four touchdowns, providing the 49ers with a viable threat in the air from the halfback position.

McCaffrey's impact goes way further than the box score, however, as he generated a significant amount of attention as a receiver, while allowing San Francisco to operate out of different formations to stretch defenses.

As an example, that allowed head coach Kyle Shanahan to call route combinations that provided open passes in the intermediate range of the field because of how defenses crashed on the star running back in the flat.

McCaffrey was the team's offensive MVP in 2022, despite playing in just 11 games with the team: he was that good.

Elijah Mitchell

Elijah Mitchell is an extremely talented and tough runner when the football is in his hands, and he's never fumbled in an NFL game. However, the second-year running back has been injury prone early on in his career, which has limited his impact.

In 2022, Mitchell rushed for a whopping 6.2 yards per carry, but was only active for five regular-season games due to multiple high-ankle sprains, rushing for just 279 yards on the season.

Still, Mitchell brings a unique value to the 49ers with his ability as a runner, as the Louisiana product is consistently able to generate yards after contact, while possessing enough speed to hit the edge on the outside zone.

Mitchell's presence made the McCaffrey trade even more exciting at the time because San Francisco would finally have two running backs with multi-dimensional skillsets that could potentially bring back glimpses of the 2019 rushing attack where the 49ers operated with three talented halfbacks.

If Mitchell can remain healthy for the duration of a season, he'd be a fantastic complement to Christian McCaffrey in 2023. However, that's a big "if" that we haven't seen answered yet two years into the halfback's career.

Jeff Wilson Jr.

Jeff Wilson Jr. presented an interesting conundrum for the 49ers when he was their lead back for the first seven weeks of the season, as Mitchell suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 1 after a few touches.

Wilson was efficient with his carries during his time in San Francisco, averaging 5.2 yards per carry, but the 49ers' rushing attack wasn't efficient at all, despite the veteran serving as the lead bell-cow back.

After Trey Lance went down in Week 2 of the regular season, which took away the element of the zone-read for the 49ers, the 49ers ranked 29th in expected points added per play(EPA/play) on the ground and 26th in rushing DVOA during the period where Wilson was the lead back.

Wilson benefited from Kyle Shanahan's creativity, which allowed for several chunk plays over the weeks, but the overall efficiency with the veteran in the backfield was poor, as he didn't possess the speed to be considered an outside-zone threat, making the 49ers' running game predictable between the tackles, which I wrote about back at the time of the McCaffrey trade.

With a one-dimensional attack, as Wilson was the main running back during the time, the offense significantly struggled, especially on the ground, hence the 3-4 start to the season, despite possessing the No. 1 defense, before McCaffrey entered the fold.

Wilson wasn't a bad running back, as seen by his numbers, but his contributions with the 49ers in 2022 weren't very high.

The rookies

Tyrion Davis-Price was a disappointment in 2022, failing to crack the running back rotation, despite injuries to Elijah Mitchell early in the season and his draft stock.

The rookie third-rounder rushed for just 99 yards on the year, averaging 2.9 yards per carry, and was thwarted by a high-ankle sprain that he suffered against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2 after a 14-carry, 33-yard game.

Jordan Mason, on the other hand, impressed with every opportunity he received, showcasing his power and ability after contact, which is why he served as the 49ers' closer to Christian McCaffrey when Mitchell suffered his second high-ankle sprain.

Still, Mason didn't seem to be in favor with the coaches as much as his play may have indicated, as the backup running back didn't see many carries either in the regular season, rushing for 258 yards on 43 carries, although he had 11 touches against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a 35-7 blowout.

Mason should look to compete for more opportunities as he improves in pass protection, as his elusiveness and package of speed and power at his size provide a different element to the offense.

The Grade

Over the first half of the season, the 49ers' running backs were at an average to below-average level, holding a grade of a C or C-.

But, with McCaffrey's presence in the second half of the season that single-handedly changed the direction of the 49ers season, that grade gets bumped up to a B/B+ for the year.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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