Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

A New Million Dollar Backfield?

Bret Rumbeck
Jun 1, 2018 at 8:22 AM

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There are few certainties or locks for any player to make the 2018 San Francisco 49ers roster. The running back cadre for the 49ers is a notable exception, as even in early June it is clear who will make the 53-man roster. That is unless something weird happens between today and the start of training camp.

Running Back
Jerick McKinnon
Matt Breida
Raheem Mostert

Kyle Juszczyk

Since the 2014 season, 49er running backs have not had an offensive line that creates clear running lanes. The 2017 season saw the 49ers rush attack finish 21st in the NFL. The team was ninth in rushing touchdowns (15 rush TDs) and 15th in yards per rush attempt (4.1 yards/attempt).

Former 49er running back Carlos Hyde, and second-year back Matt Breida deserve our applause for grinding out these statistics behind an offensive line made up of Zane Beadles and Laken Tomlinson.

Last fall's ground game was something of a dual personality: one side was a ferocious animal that had no limit or compassion, the other a meek lamb, unable to run from predators and ultimately torn limb from limb.

Early in the season, the 49ers racked up 159 yards against Seattle, with former 49er Carlos Hyde running for 124 yards on 15 carries. In Week 10, the 49ers took advantage of a porous New York Giants defense and had 186 yards on the ground and two touchdowns.

Unfortunately, the 49ers had games when the ground attack was a hapless, lifeless, ineffective heap of dirty laundry. In a Week 5 matchup against Indianapolis, the 49ers rushed 22 times for a whopping 66 yards and zero touchdowns. Against the Tennessee Titans in Week 15, the 49ers barely broke 50 yards on the ground on 22 rush attempts.

When Shanahan helped the Atlanta Falcons reach the Super Bowl, his rush offense ranked fifth in the NFL, oddly enough, just behind that of the 49ers. His offense demands a balanced attack, not just relying on the lightning bolt arm of Garoppolo.

The Main Rotation: Jerick McKinnon, Matt Breida, and Kyle Juszczyk

It's hard to tell if the fan base is warming to McKinnon as the starting running back for the 49ers. His signing certainly had a few people scratching their heads; however, he is the type of back Shanahan needs to execute the offense. He's faster than Hyde, is a better receiver and a far superior pass blocker.

The West Coast Offense needs a running back who resembles a Swiss Army Knife, not just someone who can hit the six-hole and turn the ball upfield. Shanahan's system asks the backs to play a prominent role in the air attack, both as a primary receiver and as a check-down should the rush get too thick. McKinnon is far more sure-handed than Hyde and can make more things happen in space.

My only concern is whether McKinnon can handle a full season as the starting running back. McKinnon averages 118.5 rush attempts per season, which he'll need to double this year.

However, McKinnon may not need to shoulder such a heavy load and could keep his attempts to under 200. Second-year running back Matt Breida is an excellent complement to the 2018 rush attack. He's a speedy player who can take the ball around right tackle, have the patience to wait for the play to open a bit more and turn the ball upfield for 12 yards.

Breida had 105 attempts last year, and I'm excited for him to have possibly fifty or sixty more this fall. Further, rotating McKinnon and Breida is a deadly combination that forces the opposition to chase two speedsters up and down the hot, chunked turf of Levi's Stadium.

Here's an icy take for Friday: Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk will make the roster. I'm hopeful he can stay healthy, as he only played in 14 games last season.

I'd like to see Shanahan use Juszczyk in the passing attack more, both as a receiver and a pass blocker. Last season, Shanahan only called on Juszczyk to pass block 25 times (per Pro Football Focus).

The West Coast Offense employs pass protections that tell the halfback and fullback to stay in and pick up blitzing linebackers or ends. For example, 2/3 Jet is six-man protection that tells the fullback to help the strong side tackle by reading possible blitzes to the call side, reading the inside linebacker when the guard and center are covered, or alert on the strong safety. The halfback has a free release in Jet protection.

Fox 2/3 is seven-man protection where the backs move in the same direction (flow) or move in the opposite direction (divide). Often the fullback picks up the blitzing linebacker in the A or B gap, while the running back covers the C gap. With rookie Mike McGlinchey projected to start at right tackle, along with an unproven interior line, it makes sense for Shanahan to have Juszczyk to stay in the backfield on some passes to help out the rookie.

Raheem Mostert: Special Teams Heart and Soul

Over four seasons, veteran Raheem Mostert has played for five teams. On November 28, 2016, the 49ers signed him to the practice squad and later activated him in Week 17. Since then, he's found a way to remain on the roster with outstanding special teams play. The 49ers can't afford to lose a player like Mostert on special teams, and his experience allows him to fill in for an injured McKinnon or Breida if needed.

The Last Spot: Joe Williams, Jeff Wilson or Jeremy McNichols?

Second-year running back Joe Williams is an unknown in the position group. Last season, the 49ers placed him on injured reserve on September 2, 2017, due to an ankle injury.

Also entering his second season is Jeremy McNichols whom the 49ers signed last September to the practice squad. He did get a promotion to the active roster in late November but did not participate in any on-the-field action.

The 49ers signed undrafted free agent Jeff Wilson on May 1, 2018. Wilson played college football at North Texas and tallied over 3,200 yards rushing and 32 touchdowns in four years.

Of these three players, I can see the 49ers keeping Williams on the 53-man roster; however, he'll need a stellar preseason to assure himself a job with the team. McNichols has a slim chance of beating out Williams for a roster spot, so don't turn off the preseason games when the starters are sent to the sideline. Either way, I expect the fourth back to end up on the inactive list on game day, and only see the field if a starter sustains a long-term injury.

With a renewed investment in the offensive line, letting Hyde wander off to Cleveland and signing McKinnon, on paper, it appears as if Shanahan has the balance and tools he needs to transform the run game into something respectable in just one season.
  • Bret Rumbeck
  • Written by:
    Bret Rumbeck has been writing about the 49ers since 2017 for 49ers Webzone and 49ers Hub. He is a Turlock, CA native, and has worked for two members of the US House of Representatives and one US Senator. When not breaking down game film, Bret spends his time seeking out various forms of heavy metal. Feel free to follow him or direct inquiries to @brumbeck.
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.


  • Mike kenney
    Hugh, the King, McIlhenny was consummate Pro. Hard to see that whole backfield earning in a year what McKinnon can earn in a day. He'll earn it too, with the Tackles widening the field. I think Shanahan can really use Juice this year, remembering McK is a superb blocker. McNichols intrigues. He was absolute dynamite at Boise, especially receing. Maybe Bobby can work his magic with him. Williams has talent, needs a new mindset.
    Jun 10, 2018 at 7:31 AM
  • mbniner
    I admire your optimism and dedication to the Niners, but, the Million Dollar Backfield (when a million dollars was a lot!!) had two unbelievable runners in McElhenny and Perry (Johnson was no slouch either) and Y.A. I saw them many times when I was young, I used to usher at Kezar Stadium. It's nice to dream that these guys could evolve into something close to that but I would wait before mentioning the two groups in one sentence.
    Jun 1, 2018 at 12:35 PM

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