High on the 49ers’ list of needs this offseason is running back. With the expected parting of the ways between the team and Carlos Hyde, and no other household names to speak of, they’ve been often mentioned as a top suitor for players like Le’Veon Bell and Dion Lewis in free agency, and for a while Saquon Barkley in the draft.
The consensus seems to be that a big name is set to take over in San Francisco.
One of the returning players being overlooked, though, is Matt Breida, the long shot undrafted free agent out of Georgia Southern.
Breida’s not been someone to bet against in his career. He was a stellar college player, defied the odds when he beat out a fourth-rounder in training camp and made the roster—after not even receiving an invite to the 2017 NFL Combine—and had spectators wondering during parts of the season if he was actually the better running back when it came to Hyde.
Breida appeared in all 16 regular season games as a rookie, starting zero. He carried the ball 105 times for 465 rushing yards and two touchdowns. His 4.4 yards per carry was the 10th best in the NFL for qualified runners. That average put him in between Pro Bowler Devonta Freeman and Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley.
And Breida finished 2017 hot after getting more consistent work. Over the final two weeks of the season in which he received double-digit carries in games against the Jaguars and Rams, Breida averaged 6.73 and 6.0 yards per attempt, respectively.
Now, while he’s billed as a change-of-pace back, Breida showed over that time he can do the necessary work inside. When in between the tackles, he’s a jittery runner who pinballs off linemen and defenders. His suddenness and constant forward motion makes him effective there.
One thing helping Breida's case for more work is that he can run the inside zone, and do it quite well. He’s explosive through the hole, and can make guys miss in the open field. This is a major proof point of Breida's game that demonstrates his compatibility with Kyle Shanahan's system, and his likeness to backs before him that have succeeded in it.
As a runner, he’s got very active feet, and he’s really quick coming out of the backfield. While you’d like to not see him run into Joe Staley here, the natural athleticism Breida shows by bouncing off, keeping the play alive and stunning the defense for a nice gain is a positive. His acceleration and foot speed really jumps out at you.
Here Breida displays the patience and situational awareness you want to see in your featured back, as he follows his blocker to the boundary, plants his hand on Daniel Kilgore to assist himself laterally, and accelerates upfield. This is great running – the patience and feel of a vet, and the explosion of a young scat back.
As an extension of this last run, it's worth noting Breida can hit the big play on the boundary.
When there's even the tiniest window of daylight, he's a real threat to go the distance. On this long run against the Jaguars, Breida takes the pitch on the weak side of the formation, follows his blockers, burns the pursuit angles of A.J. Bouye, Telvin Smith and Barry Church, and shoots up the Levi's sideline for an emphatic final touchdown.
So, as a potential featured RB, it's good to see the home run ability is there.
And at the end of the day, Breida can be the one-cut runner the zone scheme demands. It's simple and essential, but he can make big plays this way. Here against the Giants, he reads, plants and scoots upfield. He’s not an easy tackle in space, either. Breida is very good at navigating the angles and contorting his body where he’s out of reach of the defender.
That more or less clocks him as a runner.
But he can also be a factor in the passing attack, which is important to the system and coaching staff. Breida as a rookie caught 21 of 36 targets for 180 yards and a score. Over that time, he looked like a player that could evolve into a fixture in the underneath, quick passing game.
Here against Jacksonville we see Breida run a five-yard hook. Jimmy Garoppolo hits him on his spot, but Breida scoops the low pass, slips a Telvin Smith tackle and converts for the first down. This shows how he can be an outlet for the quarterback.
On this next play against Chicago, Breida out of the shotgun runs what looks like an incomplete Texas route (after he sees the ball is out and on its way to receiver Trent Taylor). While he doesn’t get the ball here, Breida is visibly quick in his route and creates separation from the defender with room to run up the middle had Garoppolo targeted him.
While he doesn’t get targeted here against the Giants either, Breida, again, comes out looking like a quick, fluid route runner. On this speed out, he gets underneath and away from the linebacker assigned to him, and creates a safe throw for C.J. Beathard in the flat.
Here’s what it looks like when Breida runs that route and does get targeted.
You wonder if Breida can handle the load of 20-25 touches per game, or be the lead back in a committee, but watching him this past season reminded me of Eagles great Brian Westbrook.
Similarly compact and not a load at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, Breida is a smart player that can do a little bit of everything at the running back position. So, as the offseason gets underway, if there is a lack of activity on the running back front, or the free-agent signing or draft pick they make is underwhelming, Breida might be why.
Media courtesy SF Bay