Now that the San Francisco 49ers have locked in their quarterback of the future in Jimmy Garoppolo they can focus on building the offense around him. Along with the offensive line, the running back position has proven to be a vital piece of Kyle Shanahan‘s offense. Carlos Hyde led the team in rushing the last two seasons but could end up finding a new home via free agency. The 49ers could look to add an alternative free agent depending on how the market flows or continue the Shanahan family tradition of finding deep draft picks that fit their scheme and system more favorably. Let’s take a look at some of the potential free agent and draft targets that could end up in San Francisco.
Addressing the San Francisco 49ers Running Back Need
Re-Sign Carlos Hyde
This would be a quick fix and reward Hyde for buying in on the new philosophy of the organization. The steps that it would take for this to actually happen will depend heavily on where Hyde and his agent set his contract expectations. The main criticism against Hyde in his career has been related to durability but the former Ohio State star was able to calm those concerns by staying healthy all season in 2017. However, even with another full season as the starter under his belt, Hyde was unable to surpass the 1,000-yard mark. This can also be attributed to the inconsistent offensive line play and the lack of spark from the offense as a whole (prior to the boost of Garoppolo as the starter). Also, in spite of leading the team in catches, he is still suspect as a consistent receiving threat out of the backfield.
Sign a Free Agent
The prize of the free agent running back pool could be Le’Veon Bell but it’s safe to assume that the Pittsburgh Steelers will do everything in their power to keep him in town. They are expected to use the franchise tag which will prevent Bell from hitting the open market and being wooed away. The allure of a player of Bell’s caliber is obvious to any team or offensive scheme. His ability to impact the game as both a runner and receiver is well documented. No situation is perfect though, as Bell’s contract demands will surely set the new market value for his position. Along with that, it is fair to be wary of spending top dollar on a running back that had over 400 total touches in 2017.
Another running back that could provide a boost in the passing game and still add value as a pass blocker would be Dion Lewis of the New England Patriots. His ability to impact the outside zone running game has been on display for a majority of his career with the Patriots. Unfortunately for Lewis’ impending free agency value, his durability (or lack thereof) has also been on display during his six-year career. Lewis has played in double-digit games twice since joining the league in 2011. His familiarity with Garoppolo would be a welcome addition, but the offense would need to lean on a committee or balanced workload within the backfield to keep Lewis healthy.
Another option is Jerick McKinnon who could be seeking a new situation outside of the now crowded backfield in Minnesota. McKinnon offers similar upside to Lewis with less wear and tear and potentially a lower price tag. Isaiah Crowell may also seek to reconnect with a familiar offense under Kyle Shanahan. Back in 2016, Crowell enjoyed the best season of his career with statistics that were eerily similar to Hyde’s numbers from this past year.
A Deep Draft Class
The rookie running back class of 2017 was truly spectacular. So naturally, an increased spotlight will be placed on this incoming group to see how they measure up. As it turns out, the 2018 class boasts some great prospects that can provide immediate impacts. The star of this group is clearly Saquon Barkley who is widely regarded as the top player in the entire draft. His impressive balance of speed, power, and agility make him a fit for any offense but imagining him as the feature back in Shanahan’s system is exhilarating. The unfortunate reality is that a player of Barkley’s talent still being available at the ninth or 10th pick seems highly unlikely. Looking at the list of teams that pick ahead of San Francisco, almost all of them would be happy to add Barkley.
Derrius Guice is widely viewed as the consensus second-best in this group. Guice offers the ability to grind out a game and wear down a defense similar to Barkley but the versatility as a receiver is a question mark. In every sense of the word, Guice is a “closer” that looks to punish defenders at the end of his run. The holes in his game are also apparent though. In pass protection, he leaves plenty to be desired.
Few players were able to help their draft stock more than Sony Michel did during the College Football Playoff. The only thing quicker than Michel might be the pro comparisons to the rookie of the year Alvin Kamara. Michel has flashed the same time of game-changing ability and even shows up in pass protection. He may be best served in a shared backfield as he was in college with fellow Georgia Bulldog Nick Chubb.
With plenty of cap room and buzz still lingering after inking Garoppolo, the 49ers should be able to attract more free agent interest. If they decide to focus on other needs first, the draft is clearly ripe with potential talent and scheme fits. Whichever route they go, the front office should be able to add another impactful dimension to this offense.
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