Draft rumors are half the fun of the offseason. Teams being linked to incoming players and picturing how they’ll fit fans the creative flame until draft day is officially upon us. The 49ers have been connected to one player in particular lately, and that’s LSU's earth-shaking tailback Leonard Fournette.
The reason this rumor is worth talking about is because the 49ers hold the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. If you cross off Myles Garrett—or in the far-off chance Mitch Trubisky or Deshaun Watson—San Francisco can pretty much have anyone it wants. It also holds water because Fournette is viewed as a top-five talent.
And added to which, questions surfaced during the combine in one form or another around other sensible 49ers picks like Reuben Foster (character) and Jonathan Allen (health).
So the 49ers are left with the very real possibility of selecting a running back at No. 2 overall in 2017, after taking one at No. 57 in 2014. It would make sense for Kyle Shanahan to have two dynamic workhorse-like backs. No doubt the new head coach is looking for alpha talents on offense.
But is it the best selection for the team at No. 2?
There are four overlying reasons to not take a running back that early:
It isn’t a top-five need and RB arguably won’t be the BPA at No. 2
Who even is the best running back in 2017?
Leonard Fournette isn’t complementary
The argument for Carlos Hyde
Carlos Hyde is a player still under a rookie contract that’s had bad luck with injuries but has flashed top 5-7 ability at his respective position. Why cut bait with that package in a rebuild? Especially with Shanahan and John Lynch forming the first fully functional regime since Hyde’s been in the building.
Hyde, when healthy and playing, is as productive as anyone.
Let’s put him against the NFL’s best running back, Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell.
Bell averaged 4.9 yards per carry in each of his last two seasons, while Hyde averaged 4.6 over his first double-digit start season in 2016 (13 starts in 13 games played). It was his second year as a starter, and third ever season. The 0.3-yard difference is significant, but it’s also important to remember what a ridiculous season Bell had for the Steelers.
Hyde also accomplished his production behind a shoddy offensive line, one that ranked 28th in the league by Pro Football Focus.
Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley, the man, the myth, the legend, of course finished with the team’s best run-blocking grade at 82.5, which was good enough for 12th in the league. However, you’d like an interior lineman to be that road grader – that’s the player that should be blowing holes open. The Niners don’t have anyone like that, and if they do it’s in undeveloped guard Joshua Garnett.
It became clear what El Guapo was working with as the season wore on. By mid-November of 2016, Hyde was averaging -0.7 yards before contact, meaning he was hit behind the line on seemingly every play, per Pro Football Focus. There were not many holes being created, which is a sign the offensive line needs to improve, not the half back.
Nevertheless, in that mess, Hyde managed to average 76.0 rushing yards per game off 16.7 carries a week. Meanwhile, Bell averaged an astonishing 105.7 rushing with an average of 21.8 attempts per game. But if Hyde averaged equal touches as Bell at his yards-per-carry rate in 2016, he would’ve averaged 99.97 yards per game on the ground, putting him right on the tail of the NFL’s best back.
It isn’t a fluke, either. This goes back seasons, and the quality can be pulled out of even smaller samples.
In the 2015 season, one in which the 49ers running back only started seven games, Hyde finished with PFF’s highest elusive rating among qualified backs. Over his first two seasons in the league, he forced 57 missed tackles on just 198 carries – and his after contact numbers are on par with former Seahawks bruiser and national treasure Marshawn Lynch.
Hyde is bringing it. He’s oozing with talent. His luck just needs to turn and the team around him must improve.
Not a top-five need, RB won’t be BPA at No. 2
The biggest argument to be made here is that it’s one of the few positions in the draft where the 49ers aren’t hard pressed to find a starter. And this is an even bigger deal considering that this would-be protected starting spot is on offense, which is getting a substantial makeover.
If the 49ers are looking for offensive skill players in the first few rounds, every other one should take precedence.
Regardless of Vance McDonald’s new deal, they’d be better off prioritizing a tight end; they could take a quarterback early even with Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley; and of course, wide receiver remains a position of need. Running back is last on the list here.
Furthermore, quarterback Deshaun Watson, receiver Mike Williams, safety Malik Hooker, and both defensive linemen Jonathan Allen and Solomon Thomas all appear to be rarer talents at bigger positions of need, all with franchise potential. Any one of these players would be a more practical route for San Francisco.
Who’s the best back?
Hey, if we really knew who this guy was, this entire conversation surrounding a tailback selection at No. 2 may be worth having. It would mean there’s a special, generational talent there. A can’t miss player. But there isn’t. As far as I know Myles Garrett is the only one in this class.
And, truthfully, if it weren’t for a certain incident with a certain Oklahoma player, there’s probably far more mystery as to the true consensus rankings of the top-three running backs. There would be—and there may be right now—cases to be made for Fournette as RB2 or 3 in this class.
It’s a deep enough group with no undisputed talent. The gap between No. 1 and 2, or even No. 1 and 4 isn’t that wide.
Now, I’m not anti-Fournette. I just feel like I need to present the side nobody is really talking about. Right now, I’m at the point where I don’t love him (yet?) but would certainly consider him a good addition at the right value. It’s just not likely to fall that way considering the 49ers’ needs and where they pick.
There’s also something to be said about Dalvin Cook’s agility, vision, home-run hitting speed and pass-catching ability that may make him the top back in this class. FSU’s all-time rushing leader with translatable skills? And he certainly looks like a tougher tackle than Fournette at the NFL level.
Speaking of ankle breakers, what about Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey?
The point is, it’s crowded at the top. You’re talking about four different players in this class that could potentially emerge as the best pro running back. Why force Fournette in there at No. 2? One can be had later at the end of Round 1, or perhaps at No. 34 (likely Mixon and/or McCaffrey).
Added to which, it’s not a position group lacking talent.
There’s a lot of depth this year, and historically we’ve seen running back is typically an easy-to-address position, where great players or just solid pros can be found in the early- to mid-rounds. This year it’s players like Marlon Mack, Kareem Hunt, Jamaal Williams, Wayne Gallman, D’Onta Foreman, Donnel Pumphrey; the list goes on.
Fournette is not complementary
Wicked stiff arm, I know. Production is production, right? There's a lot to like . . . But . . .
Mostly due to his 6-foot-1 stature, speed and violent style, people are quick to cling to the Adrian Peterson comp with Fournette, but what about Latavius Murray or Darren McFadden? Also tall athletes with great measurables and hammering college highlights. His pro career could always go the direction of the latter two.
And even if it doesn’t, and Fournette finds ways to become successful akin to Peterson, best case scenario it’s not complementary to what the 49ers have. He’s a feature back.
It's preferrable to have a change-of-pace rotation in the backfield, both for contract reasons and to catch defenses off guard. The Niners won't, or at least shouldn't, pay two of the same type of backs top dollar. It just isn't prudent.
Hyde would need to be traded this year or allowed to walk as an unrestricted free agent in 2018. Ideally, you don’t want to let that caliber player go. And in that situation, you’ve replaced, maybe slightly upgraded the running back position—or slightly downgraded—using the No. 2 overall pick. When all the while, the pick could’ve gone to an empty roster spot at a tough-to-settle position.
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