And then there were three.
Yesterday, the San Francisco 49ers, like every their team in the NFL, had to make some of the toughest decisions a team ever has to make — who to keep, who to waive, and who to release outright. The running back corps was one group where some especially hard choices were needed.
The Niners sent backs Tim Hightower (kind of a surprise, but understandable) and Kapri Bibbs (completely predictable) packing. Also, when they found out that Joe Williams had aggravated a previous injury in the last preseason game, they stashed him on season long I/R. This may well have been a case of making sure Williams was still a 49ers in year two and giving him the time to work on some of his issues that saw him struggling to make the 53 after a poor first few months as a 49er.
The 49ers’ moves leaves the team with three very talented, but very differently skilled, men in the backfield. Each one deserves a close look, focusing on his skills, his limitations, and his place in Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
Most writers who follow the Niners agree that, in the last couple of years, Hyde has become the best offensive player on the team. Last year, in the midst of all the chaos and frustration that was the Chip Kelly era, Hyde still managed to rack up 988 yards on 217 carries — missing a thousand yard season by just 12 yards. And if he hadn’t sustained an MCL injury in December (what a Christmas present that was!), he would have hit that very significant benchmark with no trouble. So what’s coming up this year?
Hyde will continue to run hard, and he’ll still stiff-arm defenders when he has the room to run, but this year he will have to add something to his game. He will be more patient when he looks for openings, and he will know that he doesn’t have to carry the entire offense on his shoulders.
I will go on the record here: Hyde will get that 1,000 yards this season. Not just because he desperately wants it — who wouldn’t? — because this is the last year of his contract in San Francisco and he wants to make a strong impression on the league, but because Kyle Shanahan’s scheme consistently produces 1000 yards seasons from its backs. Hyde is arguably one of the most talented backs Shanahan has been able to work with. This is perhaps best shown by his the fact that he is the clear number one back (as a runner and receiver) in an offense that has traditionally used different backs in those roles. Of course, this is undoubtedly partly a result of the inexperience of the players behind him, but Hyde has also shown notable ability as a pass catcher to compliment his running talents.
Hyde has gotten injured at least twice since coming to San Francisco, to the tune of 14 missed games. Some of that is because of poor run blocking from the offensive line in the past, but in any case he needs to prove that he is fully healthy — and then to stay that way.
How he’ll be used:
I predict that Hyde will continue to be an up-the-gut runner, and he’ll also catch passes from Brian Hoyer from out of the backfield. But those 1000 yards will be piled up slowly, not with a few very long runs in between long stretches of inactivity. Starting on September 10, Hyde will start piling up the yards, and I will be among those assiduously counting them.
It always does my heart good when an undrafted free agent makes a 53-man roster, and the feeling is especially sweet with this kid. I wrote about Breida this summer predicting that he would be higher on the depth chart than Joe Williams, and as it turned out I was right. Breida played at Georgia Southern for three years, and ran for over 2100 yards and scored 20 touchdowns. And that was in the midst of a change in coaching (sound familiar, Faithful?) and a lower leg injury in 2015.
Breida is an amazingly resilient rusher; he got more yards after contact in college than either Ezekiel Eliott or Derrick Henry. He also has a lot of quickness that will be helpful on sweeps and veers, and once he gets past the line of scrimmage, he will be tough to catch — he ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at Pro Day. If Hoyer or C.J. Beathard are worth their quarterback perceptiveness, they will be able to read the defensive lineup and hand the ball to either Hyde or Breida and get the yards they need. Alternatively, much like Hyde, Breida has flashed as a receiver this preseason and can be targeted by his quarterbacks in that way as well.
Primarily thanks to the scheme in college, he wasn’t used much as a receiver, so despite his aforementioned flashes we do not know for sure how consistent and effective he can be as a pass catcher. He’s also perhaps a little undersized, and thus is susceptible to being hit hard by a Reuben Foster wannabe, with injury potential that I don’t even want to contemplate. (Psst. Hey, blockers. You need to take care of this kid.)
How he’ll be used:
Breida will be the breakaway runner that the 49ers have sorely lacked in recent years (except for the odd kick return). In 2015, he got more of a breakaway percentage than anyone except Dalvin Cook, so we know he has the ability. Look for the team to use Breida on draw plays or reverses in particular, though he has shown the ability to execute every concept in this offense, arguably more so than Hyde. It will be interesting to see how many reps Breida takes from Hyde this season, especially as time wears on and the young pretender to the throne becomes more accustomed to the NFL.
I did not pick Mostert to make the team before the preseason began, but the former Purdue Boilermaker surprised me with some very strong preseason performances (crow eaten here). Check these numbers out:
- Vs. Chiefs: 15 carries, 89 yards
- Vs Denver: 2 kick returns, 42 yards
- Vs. Minnesota: 2 receptions for 104 yards, 4 carries for 26 yards
That is remarkable for someone who hung his hat in Miami, Baltimore, Cleveland, New York (Jets) and Chicago before joining the 49ers’ practice squad 10 months ago — and had only carried the ball one time from scrimmage before this year in a real game situation.
In addition to having some solid games this preseason, Mostert has a long record of returning kicks, and returning them a LONG way (32 yards per return, on average, last preseason). He is a tough guy to tackle, clearly. Mostert’s attitude has been great, and it shows me that Shanahan and John Lynch have put some real faith in this young man. Plus, he is a UFA after this season, so he has some definite incentive to prove his worth.
Mostert hasn’t shown that he can be effective on the other side of kicks; he has only managed one career tackle on special teams in 14 games. He also didn’t make the April mini-camp or the May OTAs, reportedly because of a soft-tissue injury, so he may be behind the curve compared to Hyde and Breida.
How he’ll be used:
It will be interesting to see how the 49ers utilise Mostert in the running game, but his elusiveness could make him unusually effective as a short yardage runner as well as enabling him to be effective in outside zone plays. He could also be the prime passing target when the team chooses to throw at someone coming out of the backfield, especially on third and long screen plays. He will likely scrap with rookie receivers Trent Taylor and Victor Bolden Jr for time as a kick returner.
If the 49ers are going to make this year a significant step forward, then all three of these guys need to stay healthy, need to remain productive, and most importantly, need to be given the right support in the field. Think blocking by Juszczyk. Think Trent Brown and Joe Staley pushing defensive linemen out of the way or onto their backs.
And then think of Hyde, Breida and Mostert picking up first downs, scoring touchdowns, and flying by opposing safeties. Because that is what the running game is all about, and that is what these men have a chance to do for their brothers in red and gold as well.
‘Nuff said. Bring on the Panthers!