How to Navigate A Crowded 49ers Backfield
It is hard to deny that nobody is better at creating opportunities for a running back than Kyle Shanahan. Time after time we see an undrafted free agent join a Shanahan system and they produce. During the draft, we saw Kyle Shanahan do something we have never seen him do, spend draft capital on running backs. In fact, the 49ers not only traded up to draft Trey Sermon, a running back out of Ohio State, they also took another running back, Elijah Mitchell (Louisiana Lafayette) in the 6th round. In the past three seasons, the 49ers leading rushers were Matt Brieda (2018), Raheem Mostert (2019), and Jeff Wilson Jr. (2020). All three of these running backs were undrafted Free Agents. Despite having a highly ranked rushing offense nearly every year, the 49ers system has not had a top 12 fantasy back since 2017 (Carlos Hyde). Shanahan’s rushing attack over the past nine years has finished in the top half of the league eight times, including the second-best in 2019 and first in 2016. These new additions are exciting but leave the water a bit mirky when trying to decipher what 49ers running back you want on your fantasy football team.
I looked back at all of Kyle Shanahan’s previous running backs to see how they performed in fantasy. Below is a chart of every Running back 1 and Running back 2 under Kyle Shanahan since he became an offensive coordinator for Houston in 2008. I looked at the percentage of carries he gave each running back, as well as their fantasy finishes that season. One big takeaway is that every time Shanahan has given one running back over 50% of the team’s total carries, he was an RB1 in fantasy. It happened six times over his thirteen-year coaching career. Over the years Shanahan has started committing to a running back by committee approach, with his second-leading rusher receiving over 20% of the team's carries every year since 2014. Another thing to note is that since entering San Francisco, he has only given one running back more than 40% of carries in a single season, and that was his first year as head coach. Since then, we have seen a steady decline in the lead rushers' attempts each season. The chart below reflects that data, as we clearly see lead backs getting fewer carries since he became the head coach of the 49ers. Contrary to popular belief I do not think that Shanahan’s committee approach is by design, but more of a product of personnel, and even Kyle Shanahan himself credits the split in carries to injuries and not his system. The key ingredient for a successful fantasy running back in the Shanahan system is to reach that 50% carry mark. Now the hard part is going to be figuring out who that will be.
Trey Sermon, RB – Ohio State / Rookie Rank: RB5
(Picture credit: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)
Once the 49ers traded up for Trey Sermon, I knew that it was for a reason and that Kyle Shanahan had a plan for him. Sermon is a physical runner who can wear down a defense with his exceptional contact balance. He is a pure runner who ran for nearly 3,000 yards and averaged 6.5 yards-per-carry in college. He did not do much pass-catching at the college level, but it does not seem to be a weakness in his game as he was able to produce when given targets. With Raheem Mostert turning 30 next year, I expect Sermon to take over the workload sooner rather than later as both Mostert, Gallman, and Wilson Jr. will be free agents following this season. Sermon is currently going in the mid to late second in dynasty rookie drafts which is a steal considering the massive upside he carries. I do not think that it is out of the realm of possibilities that in 2022 we will see Sermon as the lead workhorse in the backfield. Both Mostert and Wilson have had struggles with injuries, and are continuously missing time. Despite that, the 49ers combined for the third most fantasy points among running backs last season. I still think there is a chance that none of these backs are going to be great for fantasy, and Kyle will play the “hot hand”. Despite that, I still believe that Sermon has the highest chance among his new teammates to be considered the lead back and receive the bulk of carries in the future. If you can get Sermon in your rookie drafts, his value is almost guaranteed to go up in 2022 once the other running backs move on from the 49ers, and that is exactly what you want when investing in these rookies. The goal is return on investment, and even if Sermon does not turn into a fantasy monster, he is extremely likely to carry more fantasy weight in the coming years.
Elijah Mitchell, RB – Louisiana Lafayette / Rookie Rank: RB9
The other back I want to talk about is Elijah Mitchell, who was selected in the 6th round of this year’s draft. Mitchell’s best quality is his speed. Mitchell is more of a scheme fit for the 49ers offense than Sermon is. Kyle likes his backs to be fast and physical which is exactly what Mitchell is. He wants a back who can hit the hole quickly and get to the second level. Mitchell posted a 4.33 in the 40-yard dash which was the second-best among this year’s running back class. He is a good runner who will be able to hit the home run ball at any minute. Although I expect Sermon to shoulder more volume initially, I think Mitchell is an interesting upside play in dynasty formats. Shanahan said after the draft that he was not planning on taking two running backs, but he liked both Sermon and Mitchell so much that when Mitchell was available in the 6th he drafted him anyways. This speaks volumes towards how much Kyle likes these guys and I expect them both to play significant roles in the 49ers’ future. Mitchell can also be picked up cheap considering the upside he carries; he even fell into the post-draft waivers in a few of my leagues. He will certainly be a stash-and-hold as he will most likely need time to get the volume he would need to be fantasy relevant.
Raheem Mostert & Jeff Wilson Jr
(Picture credit: Daniel Shirley / Getty Images)
Now, what do you do with the other running backs in the room? In redraft formats, an argument could be made for Raheem Mostert, but the same cannot be said for dynasty. I do not see the 49ers re-signing him after this season and it is tough to see the soon-to-be 30-year-old running back going anywhere that he can be of much value. If you are contending, he may be worth buying since he can be bought for nickels and dimes. If you find yourself stuck with Mostert burning a hole in your roster, and you are not contending for a title, your best bet will be to try and ship him to a contender before the trade deadline as there is a good chance that he will have enough monster games early in the year to get you something in return, as small as it may be. Jeff Wilson Jr. could have some value depending on where he lands following the 2021 season. If you have him on your roster already, you may have to hold and hope for greener pastures in 2022. The same goes for Wayne Gallman and Jamycal Hasty as they will need injury help or a miracle to have any sort of fantasy relevance going forward. For the most part, I am not excited to have any 49ers running backs not named Sermon or Mitchell on my squad going forward. The important thing to remember in dynasty is that you need to sell players before the dip, and now that the dip has come for all these vets in the 49ers’ backfield, I hope you got out while you still could.
In conclusion, we all know that the 49ers are going to run the ball a lot and they are going to do it efficiently. The question is, will they give anybody a big enough piece of the pie to be relevant? I am extremely optimistic about the rookies in this offense and with the addition of Trey Lance, I expect this 49ers’ offense to be fast, run-heavy, and hard to stop. Should all the pieces fall into place you will want to buy Sermon and Mitchell while the price is still cheap and have a chance to cash in on the upside before you are too late.