San Francisco 49ers: Making sense of the running back situation

SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 23: Matt Breida #22 of the San Francisco 49ers rushes with the ball against the Chicago Bears during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on December 23, 2018 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 23: Matt Breida #22 of the San Francisco 49ers rushes with the ball against the Chicago Bears during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on December 23, 2018 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

The San Francisco 49ers will enter the 2019 season with one of the deepest backfields in the NFL. But what could we expect from the team’s running backs?

The San Francisco 49ers have a problem — but a good problem at that. In fact, the only people who might take issue with it are prospective fantasy football owners.

The 49ers have three potentially starting-caliber running backs at their disposal, and the problem will center around how to get each player an adequate number of snaps each game. From a talent perspective, this is incredible as the team is as deep at the position as ever.

But from a coaching standpoint, this represents a unique challenge, but not one that Kyle Shanahan and company are too afraid to tackle.

After signing free agent Jerick McKinnon to a four-year, $30 million contract last offseason, the 49ers backfield seemed to be set. But after a season-ending torn ACL suffered in training camp, things got a bit murkier.

Although veteran Alfred Morris began the year as the starter, it didn’t take long for him to be usurped from the starting role by upstart second-year-pro Matt Breida. Breida would break out in his sophomore NFL season rushing for a team-leading 814 yards on 153 carries.

The Georgia Southern product looked well on his way to being the 49ers lead-back next year, but the organization had other ideas in mind. San Francisco made the surprising move to sign former Atlanta Falcons running back Tevin Coleman to a modest two-year, $10 million contract in the offseason.

And now with McKinnon back in the mix, Breida returning, and Coleman inked to a new deal, the running back position is looking a bit murky once more. Again, this is hardly a bad problem to have, but it is one that will need to be resolved.

How should the 49ers divvy up snaps on offense? Which free-agent signing will have a bigger role? And will any of them be able to stop Breida from retaking his rightful throne at the top of the depth chart?

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What we do know is that Coleman is likely the best fit for Shanahan’s offensive system. The Indiana product had two of his most efficient seasons as a pro under Shanahan while in Atlanta and it’s likely that he gets the first crack at the starting role.

But don’t expect Breida to be too far behind him.

The 49ers saw firsthand what Breida could do as a lead back and it would be foolish of them to simply toss that aside in favor of their new free-agent signing. Expect both Coleman and Breida to battle for snaps in training camp and with the duo likely sharing primary first and second-down duties.

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Perhaps the player with the most defined role will be McKinnon. Despite originally being signed to be the team’s primary back last offseason, circumstances could prevent him from getting that shot with his new team.

His pass-catching pedigree and reliable pass protection skills make him an ideal fit as a third-down back — a role that should earn McKinnon his fair share of touches. It’s not as glamorous as a lead-back role, but it should give him a way of standing out amidst a crowded backfield.

There are also returning faces such as Jeff Wilson and Raheem Mostert who will likely be competing with each other for the fourth running back spot — assuming the team keeps one. With Kyle Juszczyk on the roster, there’s no guarantee that the 49ers carry four tailbacks.

But if they do, the edge probably has to go to Mostert. The 27-year-old has proven his worth as a reliable special teamer in the past and could earn a spot on the roster over Wilson because of it.

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Lastly, there’s undrafted rookie Austin Walter who will face an uphill battle to make the team and is likely more of a candidate for the practice squad than anything else.

Wilson still has practice squad eligibility but Mostert does not meaning that if the former beats the latter out for a roster spot, then Walter could have a shot at sticking around as the fifth running back on the team’s practice squad.

Regardless, expect a ton of variety between the likes of Coleman, Breida, and McKinnon this season. It’s unlikely that any of the three accumulate more than 200 carries but it’s also just as unlikely that any of them record fewer than 100.

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If anything, it’s nice to have some solid depth at the position because as the San Francisco 49ers know, injuries do happen. And when they do, it’s important to have a backup plan.

And in this case, a backup backup-plan.