The 49ers seem prepared to move on from free-agent running back Carlos Hyde this offseason, leaving second-year undrafted free agent Matt Breida as the unchallenged RB1. The team still has two mid-round picks from last year in Joe Williams and Jeremy McNichols, but neither of them has had an opportunity to show their worth. By the look of things, the team is very exposed at the tailback position.
That being the case, not only may they sign one in free agency, but the 49ers might even draft one within the first three rounds of the 2018 draft.
Given what we know about this system, the combined history of Kyle Shanahan and Bobby Turner, their tendencies and the patterns in the backs they’ve coached, and to what level of success, we can gauge this upcoming draft and make a few halfway accurate projections as to who might be on their board.
Style wise, look for powerful players that run patient and with low pad level, possess adequate breakaway speed and agility, can absorb contact and maintain a head of steam in between the tackles, and also be one to show that special burst stretching runs outside. Route running, hands and run-after-catch ability are also important.
These are common traits shared by players like Alfred Morris and Devonta Freeman, two Pro Bowl running backs coached up by Shanahan and Turner.
Vision and football intelligence matters. The coaches have to trust their back to make the right reads. We know Shanahan runs a zone-blocking scheme, which works best with a fast, decisive runner that understands and works within the system. Reading as the blocks develop in front of him and knowing when to cut upfield, and through which gap.
Turner explained in detail what he looks for:
Now, what are they willing to spend on a player like that?
Whether it matters or not, in 36 years of coaching at the NFL level, Shanahan and Turner have worked with a first-round running back a total of one season. It was in 2009, and it was Turner alone in his last season in Denver. Knowshon Moreno, taken 12th overall out of Georgia, had 1,160 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns as a rookie.
Other than that, they’ve not traditionally found or valued players that high.
Alone and as a duo, they had a long spell of making stars out of low-cost backs. In Turner and Shanahan's history together, as running backs coach and offensive coordinator, the two highest-drafted players they worked with just occurred in 2015-17 in Tevin Coleman (73rd) and Carlos Hyde (57th overall), and Hyde as the highest ever was inherited, and is perceivably being allowed to walk.
Ryan Torain (Round 6), Roy Helu (Round 4), Morris (Round 6), Terrance West (Round 3), Isaiah Crowell (UDFA), Freeman (Round 4), Coleman (Round 3) and Hyde (Round 2) make up all the featured rushers in seasons coached by the duo.
Shanahan as an OC without Turner coached third-rounder Steve Slaton to 1,282 yards and nine touchdowns in Houston in 2008. The following year, Shanahan’s last season there, the Texans added one of the most successful undrafted free agents of all-time in running back Arian Foster.
Turner, who is 30 years Shanahan’s senior, most notably coached sixth-round pick turned Pro Football Hall of Famer Terrell Davis under Kyle's father Mike. Other featured rushers include Olandis Gary (Round 4), Clinton Portis (Round 2), Reuben Droughns (Round 3), Mike Anderson (Round 6), Tatum Bell (Round 2), Selvin Young (UDFA) and Peyton Hillis (Round 7). This covers Turner’s pro history before he linked up with Kyle in 2010.
All but Young and Hillis broke 1,000 yards rushing, and the others were among the best in the league.
So we’re looking for a fast athletic, downhill back with a late Day 1 grade and beyond. The hot spot is presumably between Rounds 2-4, so we’ll include players with early to mid-round grades. And assuming Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and LSU’s Derrius Guice are fits by default—and also maybe too rich for San Francisco—we can then come up with a list of players that project well to the 49ers in the 2018 draft.
Ronald Jones, USC
Height/weight: 6-foot-1, 195 lbs.
2017: 261 carries, 1,550 rushing yards, 5.9 YPC, 19 rushing TD, (14-187-1)
Jones can be the best back in this class. He's already been compared to Jamaal Charles by NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah. He's a slasher with great contact balance and long speed. Jones chops through the line effortlessly, particularly on inside zone and stretch runs, and has home-run ability once he pops out the other side. He’s a fierce runner that plays with great tempo. Jones also worked within USC’s zone blocking scheme, so there’s a familiarity with the system that would ease the transition.
Sony Michel, Georgia
Height/weight: 5-foot-11, 222 lbs.
2017: 156 carries, 1,227 rushing yards, 7.9 YPC, 16 rushing TD, (9-96-1)
Bobby Turner has coached two Georgia running backs in Terrell Davis and Knowshon Moreno, and it’s possible Michel is the next. The school powered its smash-mouth running game through a lot of zone blocking, which makes him compatible, and Michel also possesses the physical traits Turner described. He’s very explosive, he’s got the foot speed and toughness, he’s one of the best at catching the edge, and we’ve seen he can score from anywhere on the field. With Michel’s low, physical, explosive running style and all-purpose ability, he’s a lot like Falcons' Devonta Freeman.
Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
Height/weight: 5-foot-11, 220 lbs.
2017: 289 carries, 2,248 rushing yards, 7.8 YPC, 23 rushing TD, (19-135-2)
Penny’s a stocky downhill runner with great vision, big-play ability, and a very productive history, so they can feature him from Day 1. He’s also triple threat in that he’s a runner, receiver and returner, which is nice added value. In addition to being tough and fast, Penny is great bouncing runs outside, showing ample foot quickness and lateral agility. He’s got breakaway speed, too, which is something Shanahan and Turner will be looking for. Penny compares well to Alfred Morris.
John Kelly, Tennessee
Height/weight: 5-foot-9, 205 lbs.
2017: 189 carries, 778 rushing yards, 4.1 YPC, 9 rushing TD, (37-299-0)
Alvin Kamara was the NFL's rookie sensation in 2017, and it just so happens his successor and former teammate with the Vols is quite good, too. Kelly is a similarly compact runner. He's patient, he's tough, he makes exciting cuts and has a nasty stiff arm. Kelly would fit right in the 49ers' offense as Tennessee also ran a lot of inside zone.
Akrum Wadley, Iowa
Height/weight: 5-foot-11, 195 lbs.
2017: 252 carries, 1,109 rushing yards, 4.4 YPC, 10 rushing TD, (28-353-3)
There’s shades of LeSean McCoy in Wadley. He’s a fast, shifty runner that can get to the edge and win in one-on-one situations with defenders. He’s a three-down all-purpose back who put up good production over his final two years at Iowa. And going up against the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin, he showed the toughness Turner is looking for, throwing stiff arms on top recruits in cold weather games. Wadley is also accustomed to being the centerpiece in a similarly-wired offense. Without much of a passing game to speak of, the Hawkeyes leaned on their rushing attack which is based on a complex zone blocking scheme.
Kalen Ballage, Arizona State
Height/weight: 6-foot-2, 227 lbs.
2017: 157 carries, 669 rushing yards, 4.3 YPC, 6 rushing TD, (20-91-0)
Ballage is a big, bruising athlete and one of the better route-running tailbacks in the class. He showed off his skills as a receiver at the Senior Bowl, which makes him a hot commodity as teams throw more to the running backs. So, Ballage has feature ability as a runner, but can also be a weapon and occasional mismatch in the passing game. With his length and upside as a receiver, he projects well to Tevin Coleman, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound back Shanahan and Turner had in Atlanta.
Height/weight via player school bio
Stats provided by Sports Reference
Media courtesy AJC, Getty Images, USA Today Sports Images, San Diego Union Tribune