The Boise 49ers crew has a lot of inside jokes when we gather on Sunday to watch football. Over the last few years, because the San Francisco 49ers have been plagued with injuries, we would note the new, unnamed reserve player who the team signed two days before filling in for an injured player. Then, we’d proclaim that his era of greatness for the 49ers had finally dawned.
Last season, when the 49ers activated running back Raheem Mostert from the practice squad to the active roster, I tweeted, “The Raheem Mostert era has begun for the 49ers!” Obviously, I wasn’t serious about him making much of an impact on the last game of the 2016 season.
However, there was one True Believer who thought that I was not only serious but that Mostert’s time had come in the NFL.
That was his mother-in-law; she was the only person to like the tweet.
During the offseason, when general manager John Lynch was flushing the roster, I thought Mostert’s time with the 49ers was over. There wasn’t much point keeping a player who’d bounced around the NFL but didn’t contribute much more than a few special teams statistics and one regular season rushing attempt for six yards.
In fact, the team signed veteran running back Tim Hightower on April 1 for a one-year, incentive-laden deal. A few weeks later, they acquired running back Kapri Bibbs in a trade with Denver, and signed undrafted free agent running backs Joe Williams and Matt Breida. Already it looked like Mostert had a steep uphill battle to make it through the summer practices without getting cut, let alone the 53-man roster.
However, Mostert made it through the Great Purge of Lynch, was on the 90-man roster at the start of training camp, and has exceeded all preseason expectations.
This August, Mostert’s proven everyone wrong. He helped seal the victory against Kansas City, running for 15 times for 89 yards. Shanahan did not play Mostert at running back against Denver, but he did return two kicks for 21 yards. Against the Vikings, Mostert was a jack-of-all trades for the 49ers. He rushed four times for 26 yards and a touchdown and caught two passes for 104 yards. Indeed, 87 of those receiving yards and his touchdown came on a 3rd-and-22 screen pass from rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard.
Rookies Breida and Williams have shown they can run in the NFL, often running through a crowded interior or edge and turning up field for positive yardage. Both have rough NFL talent, but it will take a season or two to shape both men into dual threats for the 49ers.
Hightower, on the other hand, had no offensive snaps against Kansas City, had 15 against Denver, and two special teams snaps against Minnesota. Running back Kapri Bibbs, who the 49ers acquired via trade with Denver on April 29, 2017, has not shown much during the preseason either. However, Bibbs does have 13 NFL games under his belt, including 29 rushing attempts for 129 yards.
The 49ers now find themselves in an undeniable dilemma.
In year’s past, the 49ers would have a few unknown players excel in the preseason, and then the front office would axe them on the final day of the preseason. After hearing the news, fans would let loose a torrent of frustrating comments, unsure why the guys who seemed to work the hardest were not on the final roster. It was a confusing mentality that permeated the 49ers’ facility like mid-summer San Francisco fog.
There’s a bit of me who feels the 49ers are ready to reward hard working players like Mostert with a spot on the 53-man roster; he’s out-performed Hightower and Bibbs over the last month.
While Breida and Williams don’t appear to have special teams skill sets – such as punt or kick return – Mostert seems to have no problem returning kickoffs or punts.
Consider what Shanahan had to say in his post-game press conference on Sunday night:
“If you can play special teams for us, and you do a good job on offense or defense, it gives you a very good chance (to make the team). He’s (Mostert) done a good job on special teams, and it’s why we wanted to give him a little more playing time today to see what he could do on offense. From what I saw out there, he did a real good job.”
Far is that a full guarantee that Moster’s makes the 53-man roster; but it says more for a player who can be a utility man than a player who only sees himself as a running back.
For all the factors that make a great football organization – high-talent, football smarts, Jedi-like foresight on the field – the 49ers have sorely missed players who survive the pure savageness of the NFL on pure heart. Think back to when Blake Costanzo was leading the Tony Montana Squad, and how fearsome the 49ers special teams unit was. Or, consider Marcus Rush who showed the coaching staff and general manager he had the heart to be an NFL linebacker, but the 49ers failed to recognize this and relegated him to the practice squad. They did nothing to develop him as a player and ultimately lost him to Jacksonville in late December.
Mostert is the type of player the 49ers need to retain and develop, far more so than Tim Hightower or Kapri Bibbs. I’ve argued for the last few years the team needs to foster players who aren’t superstars, rather than rely on an uncertain waiver wire or free agent market to fill gaps in the midseason roster. Mostert is that guy for the 49ers, even if his primary role ends up returning punts, kick-offs or occasionally filling in at running back. He’s going to be more valuable to the 49ers as a member of this year’s 53-man roster, rather than playing against them later in the year.