Last season, the number of quality running backs available in the NFL draft was low.
The 49ers, however, were able to select Ohio State standout Carlos Hyde, and now Hyde appears to have a bright future with the team.
Now, as the 49ers prepare to scout the top draft prospects at the annual NFL Combine in Indianapolis this week, it’s likely the team will be able to add some quality and depth to its running back corps because this year’s group of college running backs is talented and deep.
“This running back class is one of the best in the last 10 years both because it has quality up top and depth throughout,” NFL Network chief draft analyst Mike Mayock told USA Today recently.
The 49ers probably won’t go for a running back with their first- or second-round picks – wide receiver, both lines and cornerback would seem to be higher priorities – but even drafting in the middle rounds, San Francisco should be able to get a running back with potential.
Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin, Todd Gurley of Georgia, Ameer Abdullah of Nebraska, Jay Ajayi of Boise State, Duke Johnson of Miami and Tevin Coleman of Indiana are ranked at the top of the class, likely to go in the first two rounds. Gurley, who suffered a torn ACL in November, might drop out of the first round, but could be the most talented in the group. He's a big, powerful back with good speed.
But if the 49ers should opt to pick a running back in the third through fifth rounds, they could have their pick between T.J. Yeldon of Alabama, David Cobb of Minnesota, Mike Davis of South Carolina, David Johnson of Northern Iowa, Jeremy Langford of Michigan State, Cameron Artis-Payne of Auburn or Javorious Allen of USC.
As Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee noted recently, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke has said in the past that he likes a running back-by-committee approach. And, if the Niners decide not to bring back Frank Gore, that could mean Hyde and Kendall Hunter (returning from a knee injury) could share the duties with a drafted back who could complement their styles and talents.
One such player could be Cobb, who rushed for 1,202 yards in 2014 for the Gophers and had a 145-yard performance with three TDs in a loss to Ohio State. At 5-foot-11 and 229 pounds, he’s a rugged runner who can run both inside the tackles and to the outside. He’s been projected as a third-round pick.
Because this class of backs is so deep, Baalke could wait to get a running back in the middle to late rounds, while filling other needs earlier – especially if he’s looking not for a marquee, No. 1 ballcarrier, but someone to complement Hyde and Hunter.
Wrote Barrows: “If Baalke ever was going to assemble a three-headed beast at this position, this would seem to be the offseason to do so.”