This is part four of a seven-part examination of the 49ers’ most critical needs, and the free agents who might be able to meet those needs, given the right offers and the right timing. I’ll also be looking at the players with expiring contracts who have filled the positions of need, and why they (mostly) didn’t cut the mustard in Santa Clara. And I will operate on the assumption that the team does not spend a draft pick on any of them, just to keep things simple; I know General Manager John Lynch & Co. will be using their draft picks wisely and generously, but I don’t want to muddy the waters for the sake of the rest of this Nothing But Niners series.
Past segments of this series have included cornerbacks, edge rushers, and guards.
This week, we deal with free agent running backs.
Why We Need This
Carlos Hyde had some enormous shoes to fill when Frank Gore was swiped in free agency (one of Trent Baalke’s more egregious sins), and he didn’t really fill them to a satisfactory level. He hasn’t been able to stay healthy, he has never had a 1000-yard season (although he did finish 12 yards shy in 2017, the point still stands), and in his years with the 49ers he fumbled three times more than the number of times he scored a touchdown. Unless nostalgia overwhelms John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan pretty soon, they will let Hyde off the reservation. Even if nostalgia does overwhelm those two men, they shouldn’t be looking at El Guapo (more on that in a minute).
I was a fan of Matt Breida from the time he was drafted out of Georgia Southern, and while he didn’t shatter any records as Hyde’s primary backup, he proved that he could hold his own in the NFL (465 yards on 105 carries, with 2 TDs). Joe Williams managed to get himself injured on September 2 and spent last season on IR, but assuming he doesn’t get hurt again, I can see him dodging, ducking, and dipping for yards. But that still leaves a need for someone who can level a linebacker for long gains and imitate a cannonball on short yardage.
There are a lot of great runners coming out of college this year, and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if the Niners drafted one or two in the later rounds. But the free agency market isn’t bad, either. Here are my three top picks, with one honorable mention.
Third choice: Orleans Darkwa, Giants
When Darkwa took over as the Giants’ starting running back, he impressed everyone by being almost impossible to take down on first contact. In the first few weeks in that role, the guy averaged over 5 yards per carry, and ran for eight 20+ yard gains. When defensive linemen or linebackers did lay hands on him, they still couldn’t knock him backwards; he was almost never hit for a loss last season. By the time the Giants finished their 2017 campaign, Darkwa (who had been signed to a one year deal in March 2017) had racked up 751 yards on 171 carries, and he’s taken the ball to the house 5 times. Apart from one offseason tibia fracture, I can’t see much in this guy’s record that doesn’t scream “SIGN ME,” so I will scream to John Lynch: “SIGN HIM!”
Second choice: Dion Lewis, Patriots
Lewis played for three years at Pitt before entering the draft, and he’s hung his hat in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and New England. As a Patriot this last season, he had his best year, rushing for 896 yards on 190 carries, and scoring 6 touchdowns. Plus, he returned 23 kicks for 570 yards…not that Trent Taylor has been a slouch in that department, but Taylor obviously can’t be the only one to do runbacks next season. Lewis’ seasoning as a veteran can only help a squad that has very young running backs. Lewis isn’t a giant of a man, and I don’t know how often he would be a passing target out of the backfield, but he can elude tackles and he knows how to work with blockers and use his speed to his advantage. Plus, the scuttlebutt is that the Patriots aren’t especially interested in bringing him back (especially since New England generally doesn’t lavish big paychecks on runners). Lynch and Shanahan should give the Albany, NY native some serious consideration.
First choice: Jerick McKinnon, Vikings
McKinnon was given a rotational role in Minnesota, and it was not the position he wanted, nor did it bring him the success he deserved. The guy wants to be in a scheme that will showcase his talents, and San Francisco might be the place. Last season, the relative lack of snaps notwithstanding, PFF ranked McKinnon its seventh best pass-catching running back and eighth running back overall. And the guy is extremely strong and tough: when he runs, he slams hard the way one of his notable predecessors (stay tuned, we’re getting there). If the Niners can guarantee him that he will be at least as well utilized as Breida this coming season — and pay him what a #1 running back deserves — he might be the guy to lead the ground game for the Niners.
Honorable Mention: Frank Gore, Colts
I’ve alluded to Gore twice already in this piece, in comparison and for contextualization. I own a Gore football jersey, and I consider him to be the biggest offensive weapon the team has had in the past 15 years.
The sentimental part of me wants Gore back in Santa Clara, because he should finish his career as 49er. The more practical side of me, not so much…because he would be finishing his career here.
Gore is 35 years old, ancient for the modern NFL. When he went to Indy, and the Colts then brought in Andrew Luck from Stanford, some critics said the combination of the two would be unstoppable. Well, the last time I checked, Luck has no Super Bowl rings, and Gore hasn’t grown any younger.
I can remember when Reggie Bush was on the team, and I can remember his last exit from Levi’s was in the back of a golf cart. It was a sad end to the career of a deeply talented runner who was nonetheless past his prime and might not have even had any business being in the NFL at that point in his life. Granted, Gore isn’t Bush, doesn’t have the same history of injuries, and might not be as unlucky in a return to Santa Clara. But he might.
Do we want to spend a huge amount of money on a back who would be around for a year at most? And do we want to run the risk of Frank the Tank being carried off the field, rather than ending his NFL run with dignity and strength? And did I mention he’s 35 years old?
Sure, we can bring Gore back. I certainly wouldn’t disagree. But we should do so knowing that he is not the answer to our football problems, and that he would be there to receive our gratitude more than to receive handoffs. You take it from there, John and Kyle.