Following the completion of phase two of the 49ers offseason programme, the ninety man roster has essentially been finalised. An area on the roster generating a huge amount of intrigue currently is the running back position, where the combination of multiple new players at the position and a reluctance to commit to the incumbent starter Carlos Hyde has helped to generate a significant amount of interest from the Faithful.
Levels of excitement have arguably reached new heights following some media comments regarding the abilities of undrafted free agent back Matt Breida, who is reported to have outshone fellow rookie Joe Williams in early practices. This is particularly significant given the supposed running back talent-spotting extraordinaire Kyle Shanahan was insistent on the team taking Williams in the draft. As result of Shanahan’s theoretical talent identification gifts, rather than the news being greeted with some raised eyebrows and criticism of John Lynch wavering from his board, the belief amongst many was that the team had successfully found an undrafted gem in Breida who, like Williams, was primed to make a run at Carlos Hyde’s spot as a starter.
The success of Shanahan in exploiting the gifts of his backs in addition to the good fit that both backs would seem to possess in Shanahan’s scheme means that this viewpoint cannot be dismissed out of hand. Some perspective, especially on Breida, is required however.
Both Breida and Williams have tremendous explosive qualities, though Breida would appear the more explosive of the two. Had he taken part in the Combine, he would have ranked first amongst running backs in the forty yard dash (4.37), vertical jump(42 inches) and broad jump (11”2) whilst coming third in the bench press (23 reps, despite only weighing 190lbs). Williams is no slouch either, running a reported sub 4.4 forty at his Pro Day after running a 4.41 at the combine.
Both players’ breakaway speed and explosiveness show up on film. They are both excellent fits in a zone scheme due to their lateral quickness enabling them to get to the outside and turn the corner or their abilities to exploit the holes up the middle that their offensive line give to them and turn them into long gains.
That final point is crucial however. Whilst possessing the game changing breakaway speed to create massive gains once they reach the second level or in exploiting missteps, both backs struggle to create yards on their own, an area that Hyde by contrast thrives in. Breida, despite his athletic traits, was one of the least elusive backs in college football per PFF and this lack of elusiveness shows up on film. He rarely creates his own yards unless by running through arm tackles of defenders who have overrun the play or are being blocked. Williams was a little better and also demonstrates more ability than Breida as a pass catcher and blocker at this stage.
Due to his athletic traits, it is not surprising that Breida might have looked fantastic before the pads have gone on. Equally, it is unsurprising that both backs are being thought of as possible replacements of Carlos Hyde given their perceived fit in Kyle Shanahan’s zone running scheme combined with their freakish athletic abilities.
Nevertheless, it is most likely that Williams plays the Coleman to Hyde’s Freeman, offering a change of pace and game breaking speed as a rotational back, at least at this stage of his career. He is undoubtedly highly talented, and will kill defenses if he is given a sniff of a hole to run through. He does not yet appear to be a starting calibre back in the NFL however, unless a significant amount of his yard creating abilities went untapped at Utah. The 49ers’ offensive line is also unlikely to generate the gaps he was afforded in college.
With Breida, it is likely that he makes it onto the practice squad, with his alluring game changing potential hindered at this point by his relatively small frame, inability to create his own yards and poor all round game as a running back. The extent to which he can bulk up and maintain his explosiveness, as well as develop his running ability, blocking and pass catching will greatly influence his chances of being a success at the next level. He could sneak onto the roster as the final back, but that would likely be at the expense of veteran Tim Hightower, or Kapri Bibbs who the team traded for during the NFL draft.