One of the hottest and most widely-debated topics around this coming offseason will without a doubt be whether or not the 49ers should sink a high first-round pick into running back Saquon Barkley, the Heisman runner-up from Penn State, if he is available.
It is already at the forefront of people's minds. So much so that head coach Kyle Shanahan indirectly commented on the matter this week ahead of a huge Week 16 matchup against a Super Bowl contender in the Jaguars.
“It’s been proven that you can get guys later," Shanahan said Wednesday, addressing the 2017 draft in which the 49ers took Solomon Thomas over Leonard Fournette.
“But, that by no means (means) that I’m going to say we’re never going to draft a running back high. When you find a special one and you think that makes sense for your team, you should never hesitate to do that.”
Barkley admittedly looks like “a special one,” and the 49ers may be faced with that decision again.
Though, right now, there seem to be two trains of thought; one is that Barkley is a no-brainer for the 49ers as perhaps the best offensive skill player in the draft, and the other is that it wouldn't be good value and that Shanahan in particular can turn water into wine at the running back position. To me, it doesn’t seem like they can go wrong here. Taking Barkley or taking someone else, they’re likely to get better.
But for the sake of this article, I’ll explain why there is a belief that it’s not Shanahan’s inclination to take a running back that high, and why it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Barkley is there in the top five and the 49ers pass.
INTRODUCING BOBBY TURNER AND KYLE SHANAHAN
Prior to taking the gig in San Francisco, Shanahan spent nine years as an offensive coordinator and play-caller. Here’s a look at how it went for his lead running backs, while also showing how they first entered the league:
West and Crowell are both included because there was only a 25-touch difference in their total market share. Together they were essentially the lead back for Cleveland, accounting for 319 carries and 339 total touches that year.
Omitted from this list is Falcons running back Tevin Coleman, picked 73rd overall in 2015, who also had 941 yards from scrimmage and 11 TD in support of Freeman in 2016. While productive, he was not included above due to his unequal share of touches (132 less than Freeman).
Speaking of Freeman, while 2015 wasn’t his rookie year, it was just his second NFL season and first with Shanahan—and it was the definition of a breakout year. Freeman absolutely blew the doors off the NFL after getting only 65 carries in 16 games the year prior.
Several of Shanahan’s backs also finished tops in the league in rushing.
Slaton finished sixth in rushing in 2008; Morris finished second in rushing in 2012, only behind future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson who ran for 2,097 yards, which was second-most all-time; Morris finished fourth in rushing a year later in 2013; Freeman finished seventh in rushing in 2015, and then ninth in 2016.
That’s five top-10 rushers Shanahan produced in nine years as an offensive coordinator, and not one of these players were household names entering their respective breakout seasons.
Shanahan even said at the same presser prior to the Jags that you can find running backs all over the board, as long as you know what you’re looking for:
“A big-time running back, whether it’s Fournette, whether it’s Adrian Peterson who was a top-10 pick, whether it was Terrell Davis in the sixth round, whether it’s David Johnson, who I think was a third rounder, or Le’Veon Bell I think is a second rounder, all those guys are worth top-five picks, but they were all found different places.
“If they came back out, if Terrell came out I promise you he’s not going in the sixth round. He’s probably going as a top-five pick and that’s one of the reasons (the Broncos) won a Super Bowl. You’ve just got to find who you think that guy is. There’s lots of ways to do it.”
Fournette wasn't the only "special" running back Shanahan passed on. He also voted against the Texans taking Reggie Bush at No. 1 overall in 2006, instead putting his support behind defensive end Mario Williams, who Houston eventually selected.
NFL analyst Charley Casserly, who was the Texans' general manager at the time, told the story of how Shanahan pushed for Williams over Bush, the Heisman-winning running back who was one of the most captivating college football players of all-time.
“I went around the room and asked all of them who they thought we should draft, and I started with Kyle because he was the youngest,” Casserly, now with NFL Network, said. “Kyle said we should take Mario Williams because he was the best player for the franchise.
“Think about that… He was an offensive coach, we needed a running back, and he said we should take the defensive player. That’s why I always thought he would be a head coach, because he can see the big picture.”
Shanahan has also been joined at the hip with Bobby Turner since 2010, who is one of the best running back coaches in the league. They’ve spent the last eight years together. Before that, Turner spent 14 seasons with Kyle’s father, Mike, in Denver. It was there that Turner worked with Terrell Davis, coaching him to three All-Pro seasons, the last of which saw Davis join a very elite 2,000-yard club.
Only one year of Turner’s NFL coaching career hasn’t been spent serving under or in partnership with a Shanahan. He’s also coached tailbacks in three Super Bowl campaigns with two different teams.
Together, Turner and the Shanahans have written the book on turning undervalued running backs into superstars.
WILL BARKLEY BE THE BEST NFL RUNNING BACK?
In 2016, everyone knew Ezekiel Elliott was head and shoulders above the rest of the class.
In 2017, everyone knew Leonard Fournette was going to be the best running back, and no one would come close.
Both coincidentally went No. 4 overall in their respective classes, and they've been major assets since arriving with their pro teams.
But the best RB talent in college does not equate to the best RB success in the National Football League, and it certainly doesn’t mean they’re irreplaceable even as the effective backs they’ve become. It starts up front.
In Zeke’s absence in 2017, backup Alfred Morris has averaged 4.4 YPC, while undrafted third-stringer and former fullback Rod Smith has had 309 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns in six games behind him.
In Jacksonville, T.J. Yeldon has averaged 5.9 yards per carry on 40 attempts, almost two whole yards more than Fournette, and has had 397 yards from scrimmage since Week 7. Chris Ivory has been adequate, but he's never been very good, so it's hard to expect much.
Dallas and Jacksonville are also among the top-rated offensive lines in the league, according to the rankings at Football Outsiders. So, we’re seeing those two particular running games continue to function at a high level even without their top-five picks.
We're also noticing that the perceived gap that existed during the draft process between players like Elliott, Fournette and the No. 2 and 3 guys ranked after them looks a whole lot smaller now.
Zeke’s 2016 draft mate Jordan Howard (fifth round, pick #150) had 1,313 rushing yards to Elliott’s league-leading 1,631 in their rookie seasons in 2016, and the Bears RB did it on 70 less carries. Howard has also averaged more yards per attempt over his first two years, and had another 1,000-yard season this year.
Titans second-rounder Derrick Henry, Dolphins third-rounder Kenyan Drake and Ravens fifth-rounder Alex Collins have also emerged as dangerous runners from that class.
Fournette’s 2017 draft mates Dalvin Cook (second round, #41), Joe Mixon (second round, #48), Alvin Kamara (third round, pick #67), Kareem Hunt (third round, #86) all look like potential top-10 running backs over the next few years.
D’Onta Foreman, a late third-rounder, looks like he’ll be taking the job from Lamar Miller within a season or two; fourth-round pick Samaje Perine has feature back size and is the favorite to lead the way in Washington; and late fourth-rounder Marlon Mack has a Shady-esque style and could be a great successor to Frank Gore in Indianapolis. Fifth-round pick Aaron Jones even looks like a find for Green Bay.
Other recent drafts where running backs went top-10:
2015: Todd Gurley went No. 10 overall to the Rams; David Johnson went No. 86 overall to the Cardinals and Jay Ajayi went No. 149 overall to the Dolphins.
2012: Trent Richardson went No. 3 overall to the Browns; Doug Martin went No. 31 overall to the Buccaneers, Lamar Miller went No. 97 overall to the Dolphins and Alfred Morris went No. 173 to Washington.
That leads us to an examination of the other backs in the 2018 class.
WHO ELSE IS IN THE 2018 NFL DRAFT
If Barkley weren’t a part of this class, we’d be talking about LSU running back Derrius Guice way, way more. He's safely a top-15 player now, but most wouldn't know it. A close second to him, in my opinion, is Ronald Jones from USC. Both Guice and Jones look like elite between-the-tackle runners that possess the vision, speed, explosiveness and just natural instinct to be great at the NFL level.
They've also had top-end production like Barkley, and looked more consistent as rushers in 2017.
The acute hype over Barkley seems to be that he is flat-out exciting to watch. And he is. With his physical ability and debonair style, he is a spectacle. And who doesn't want a player that's productive and also gets on ESPN's Top-10 with some frequency? It's good for the brand.
But if you're investing a top-five pick, what needs to matter is consistency, production, and strengths that translate to the next level. And from that standpoint, he is not head and shoulders above the rest.
Aside from Barkley, Guice and Jones, there's also Damien Harris (Alabama), Nick Chubb (Georgia), Akrum Wadley (Iowa), Rashaad Penny (San Diego State), Royce Freeman (Oregon), Sony Michel (Georgia), Josh Adams (Notre Dame), Bryce Love (Stanford), Bo Scarbrough (Alabama), and many more, all of whom make up a particularly strong running back class in 2018.
These are all top-75 players.
Based on draft history, we've seen any one of them could wind up being the better or even equal NFL tailback, and at a far lower cost. Shanahan could even elect to do what Bill Belichick has done all these years and create a dynamic committee of undervalued runners.
The 49ers need to build out an entire team. And if there's one position they know they can make a small investment in and yield great returns, why wouldn't they explore that for the sake of optimizing their total capital?
Finding great running backs on the cheap is a clear strength of Shanahan's and it's how the team can take the biggest leap in a single offseason.
So, it's not that Barkley isn't great, and worth a top-five pick to another team—but with Shanahan and Turner, and the 49ers needing as many good players as possible, it would make sense if San Francisco didn't view taking a running back that early as the optimal route.
Media courtesy AP, NOLA