• Bret Rumbeck

Let’s Run the Ball this Season – Running Back Preview

For all of last season’s horrors, the San Francisco 49ers, the team’s ground attack was one of the few

lone bright spots. Veteran Carlos Hyde rushed for 988 yards in 13 games, putting him a mere 12 yards

short of eclipsing 1,000 yards for the season. Even the second and third string backs added to the ground

game, adding 388 total yards and four touchdowns. Overall, the 49ers gained 2,019 yards on the ground

– 4 th overall in the NFL – averaging 126.2 yards per game.

Feel free to wallow in those stats, fellow Faithful; the 49ers did this behind a piecemeal offensive line.

Now, take a second to ponder this: What if the 49ers improved upon their backfield for 2017?

For John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan's first offseason, they acquired fullback Kyle Juszczyk, signed Tim

Hightower, drafted Joe Williams, traded for Kapri Bibbs and signed undrafted free agent Matt Breida. The

rumors swirled that Hyde was not going to dress in the scarlet and gold for 2017.


Here’s a problem the 49ers want when week one arrives: Juszczyk, Hyde, Williams, Breida and

Hightower are healthy and ready to go.

Each player offers Shanahan a multitude of options: Juszczyk can play anything from fullback to tight end

but takes 51 percent of his snaps as a halfback. He only has 25 career rush yards on seven

attempts but has 97 catches for 769 yards and five touchdowns over his career. 49ers fans have

screamed for our offense to incorporate more screens, swings, box combinations/crosses and Texas

routes. Well, my friends, Shanahan is crystal clear with what he intends to do with Juszczyk.

Now, visualize Hyde in the backfield with Juszczyk. We know what Hyde can do – we’ve seen his

footwork, explosion, spin move and vision of the field. For 2017, it’s time for Hyde to start to peak as a

professional. And maybe with Juszczyk to take some of the load from Hyde, we’ll see him play a full 16

game season.

With eight running backs on the roster, the coaching staff has some difficult choices coming down the

road. It’s not even July, and the battle for the backfield is shaping up to be the most exciting part of the

2017 season.

Who Are the New Players?

Kapri Bibbs comes to Santa Clara via a draft day trade with Denver. He had a stellar season with

Colorado State University in 2013, tallying more than 1,700 yards on the ground and 30 touchdowns.

However, after going unselected in the 2014 draft, he’s seen limited action on the field and spent the most

time on Denver’s practice squad.

At the end of November 2016, the 49ers signed Raheem Mostert to the practice squad. The team

elevated him to the active roster on December 31. However, Mostert has spent more time getting

bounced around the league than on the field. He’s been on five teams in two seasons and serving as a

kick or punt returner. He has one career rushing attempt for six yards.

In the fourth round of this year’s draft, Kyle Shanahan selected the running back he wanted: Joe Williams.

Peter King quoted Shanahan for his long-read on the 49ers draft room: Shanahan:

“I’m telling you right now: If we don’t get him, I’ll be sick. I will be contemplating Joe Williams all night.”

Williams played in just nine college games last season but still gained 1,407 yards rushing. He only has

314 rushing attempts in 19 total career college starts. That’s a bit concerning; I know I’d like to see

players come out of college with at least three full seasons of play. But, maybe he enters the NFL with

less wear and tear on his body.

The 49ers added seven-year veteran Tim Hightower to the running back list this off-season. Despite a

few years away from football, Hightower brings veteran experience, a four yard-per- attempt average and

162 catches for 1,208 yards.

So far, the two veteran additions can catch the football out of the backfield.

Finally, the 49ers signed undrafted free agent Matt Breida to a $30,000 contract, the fourth highest for an

UDFA. According to Pro Football Focus, in 2015 Breida averaged 3.61 yards after contact per

attempt, ranking him 8th out of 51 running backs; below Fournette and ahead of Ezekiel Elliot and Derrick


Who to Keep?

The better question isn’t who to keep; it’s who to start. Who can get five or six yards if the line misses a

block? We should expect a lot of outside zone – good for Williams and Breida – split zone and

misdirection power runs – good for Hyde and Hightower. Therefore, the real test may be to find out which

of the backs are chock full of true grit and can show Shanahan the fantastic possibilities of a ground

attack. After that, it’s how the coaching staff plans to rotate these backs to keep them fresh.

Williams and Breida may be asked to pass block more, which is not an easy adjustment coming from

college. Further, Breida’s learning curve is going to be a bit steeper because he ran a pistol offense at

Georgia Southern. It's difficult to ask a back to go from reading and making one cut back, to “Follow

this guard through the 4-hole &

It’s going to be a great day in the Silicon Valley this fall with the talent the 49ers have to work with. Hyde

finally can take some of the pressure off his shoulders to carry the ball 200 to 225 times, fans will get their

screen passes and swing routes and the preseason battle between Joe Williams and Matt Breida is going

to be fun to watch.