It used to be that NFL teams leaned on one dominant back to power the running game.
Over the years in San Francisco, that premier back was someone such as Joe Perry, Ken Willard, Roger Craig or Frank Gore, the type of players who carried 20 to 25 times per game. During the Niners’ Super Bowl-winning season of 1988, for instance, Craig carried the ball 310 times for 1,502 yards and nine touchdowns, while also catching 76 passes for 534 yards and another score. That was 386 touches for an NFL-leading 2,036 yards from scrimmage.
But in the modern NFL, many teams like a running back-by-committee approach. They prefer to use two, three or four running backs – with different styles and strengths – to keep things fresh and defenses guessing. As the game has become more quarterback/passing-oriented, the value of having a dominating lead running back has declined.
That’s how it was last season for Kyle Shanahan when he was the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons. Shanahan deployed two backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, in versatile roles. Freeman carried 227 times for 1,079 yards and had 54 catches for 462 yards. Coleman had 118 carries for 520 yards and 31 receptions for 421.
So as the NFL draft approaches – with the first round on April 27 – it’s likely that Shanahan and general manager John Lynch will select a running back or two to provide help and competition to the backs now on the roster, including No. 1 ballcarrier Carlos Hyde.
The Niners have added veteran Tim Hightower in free agency, and he could prove to be a big boost. But San Francisco has mostly struck out on its drafting of running backs over the past few years, leaving Hyde with little help. As Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group pointed out this week, draftees Kelvin Taylor (2016) and Marcus Lattimore (2013) flamed out, while Mike Davis (2015) has played but been a disappointment. Going into the draft, the running back corps consists of Hyde, Hightower, Davis and journeyman DuJuan Harris. The team also will employ a fullback again, with the versatile Kyle Juszczyk. That should help the running attack (as should his blocking, too).
But as McDonald projected, the 49ers are almost certain to add some young talent at some point in the draft. Some even have projected that San Francisco could draft one of the best in the first round, if Lynch can deal the No. 2 overall choice for additional picks while moving back in Round 1. Among the best are Leonard Fournette of LSU, Dalvin Cook of Florida State, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara of Tennessee and Joe Mixon of Oklahoma. Or, the 49ers could bring in a player on Day 2 or 3 of the draft to team with Hyde and Hightower, giving the team a trio of effective backs.
The need for another running back also appears imperative because of the injury history of Hyde. When healthy, Hyde has shown he can be a terrific player. But he’s missed 10 games over the past two seasons. And, his absence would leave Hightower as the No. 1 back and he, too, has a history of missing games. In fact, three full seasons from 2012-14. With that in mind, Shanahan and Lynch certainly won’t pass up the opportunity to add a running back at some point in the draft.