• Nicholas McGee

Trey Sermon and the 49ers' search for backfield balance

Credit: Michael Zagaris/Getty Images


Balance. Whether it's the wish for an even split between work and life or a desire to avoid failing over during yoga practice, most of us are seeking it in some form.

And when the San Francisco 49ers traded up in the third round to select Ohio State running back Trey Sermon, it was clear they had balance on their minds.

In 2019, the Niners had a ground game that was second only to that of Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens. One that shredded the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game as Raheem Mostert became the first player in NFL history to rush for over 200 yards and four touchdowns in a playoff game.

Yet, in the 2020 season, as the 49ers struggled to deal with injury crisis the extent of which would have felled most teams in the NFL, it became clear they could not solely rely on Mostert, who was in and out of the line-up for most of the year.

In San Francisco's defense, under Kyle Shanahan the 49ers have never tried to lean solely on one back, but they could find little in terms of reliability in the backfield last season. Jeff Wilson Jr. excelled when on the field, but he too struggled with injuries, as did JaMycal Hasty and Tevin Coleman, while Jerick McKinnon clearly lacked explosiveness after missing two seasons due to issues stemming from a torn ACL.

With McKinnon and Coleman gone, the Niners needed to add depth to the backfield to ensure they could give Mostert time to risk and minimize his injury risk. Coincidentally their search for balance in the running back room led them to a back for whom balance is one of his defining traits.

Few running backs in the 2021 draft class possess the same level of balance as Sermon, who does an excellent job of staying on his feet through contact and will make use of his arms and a flexible lower half to stay upright to gain extra yardage.

Niners fans had the first real glimpse of that ability during the preseason finale with the Las Vegas Raiders, in which the San Francisco running game had its way with second and third-string players.

Mostert consistently ripped off huge gains by using his burst and speed to make the most of the attention Trey Lance commanded when he was at quarterback. Almost as impressive, though, were the instances where Sermon succeeded in staying on his feet through contact for extra yardage, which allowed him to keep the chains moving, his upside in short-yardage situations there for all to see.

He complemented those displays of balance by showcasing his own burst, his ease in getting to the edge and his physicality. When you marry those traits together, plus the strength in pass protection he demonstrated in college, Sermon has the makings of the ideal back to make sure Mostert is not overused by carrying the load for entire drives.

Encouragingly, sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell stuck on the roster having shown kick return and special teams promise in the dress rehearsal and Hasty played at such a high level in preseason that the Niners were comfortable cutting Wayne Gallman.

San Francisco's quartet of running backs are, for now, healthy and the backfield looks to have depth it was bereft of last season. More importantly, the exhibition suggested Sermon can be the man to give the 49ers the balance they were seeking at running back.

By selecting Lance as their quarterback of the future, the Niners infused more explosiveness and, crucially more diversity into their rushing attack. But the arrival of Sermon and his often surprisingly graceful movement may be the most underrated addition of what they hope will be a defining offseason for the franchise.


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