The world hasn’t seen Carlos Hyde yet.
As a rookie in 2014, he started zero games and received just 83 attempts while backing up a Hall of Fame running back in Frank Gore. In 2015, Jim Tomsula was named head coach and the 49ers plummeted in all categories, most notably wins. Hyde was targeted as the clear focal point on offense and placed on injured reserve after seven starts. The 2016 season marked Hyde’s third offensive system and just his second as the intended starter. It ended, again, prematurely on IR—this time after 13 starts and 988 rushing yards at 4.6 yards a pop. He was named a Pro Bowl alternate.
Hyde, due to an unfavorable coaching and regime situation, and two season-ending injuries, has been shielded from everyone, at least from a potential standpoint. That’s why it’s unfair to judge him or make any sort of definitive statement on his career. If anything, it’s clear that when he’s played, he’s been a bright spot during dark times—outperforming expectations given the surrounding talent and direction.
So, as a highly-drafted and well-regarded tailback—the first off the board in his respective class in 2014—Hyde essentially enters his first real season as a pro three years later. This is the first time he’s been reasonably set up for success. The question now becomes, what do we make of Hyde and what can we expect?
A look at the numbers
Hyde gets a bad rap due to injuries and ultimately a lack of thousand-yard seasons—but eye the production behind the total offensive struggles. The numbers represent a player that is powerful, elusive, consistent (when healthy) and above average, despite not having a strong supporting cast around him.
To begin, Hyde has quietly proven to be one of the better creators and balanced power runners in the league, which has been magnified with his stuck-in-a-rut offensive line. From a run-blocking proficiency standpoint, the 49ers’ unit in 2016 ranked dead last, according to the data at Football Outsiders. Runs, in particular, were stuffed 22% of the time, which tied for the second-highest in the league.
But that hasn’t stopped Hyde…
The 49ers’ back is actually doing much, much more than meets the eye. Once he’s handed the ball, he first has to spin, juke or break out of a tackle behind the line of scrimmage before making his read and charging up field. For his entire pro career to date, he’s had to work around the offensive line, rather than jive with it.
The only positive is that it’s resulted in him building a callous and reputation as a tough tackle.
In the 2015 season, nobody had a better Elusive Rating than Hyde, per Pro Football Focus. He posted ratings of 78.7 in 2015 and 74.2 in 2014. For scale, DeMarco Murray in his All-Pro 2014 season with the Cowboys, in which he posted a league-best 2,261 yards from scrimmage, had an Elusive Rating of 48.0. LeSean McCoy’s career year in 2013 saw him notch only a 48.8 rating. Neither were close.
Over his first two seasons, Hyde forced a whopping 57 missed tackles on 198 carries, which was the best in the league over that time (one missed tackle every 3.5 carries). This is both from agility- and power-based moves. He’s averaged nearly 3.0 yards per carry over his career after contact, a ridiculous figure putting him alongside one of this generation’s best steamrollers, Marshawn Lynch.
This is hardly a surprise stylistically. Hyde once said, “I’d rather just try to run through you.” Lynch confessed the same, just in a more colorful manner.
It's also important to acknowledge the lack of volume over his three seasons.
In 34 career appearances, Hyde has only nine games where he’s gotten 17 or more carries. Barely more than half a season’s worth. But in those contests, he averaged 106.2 yards per game and 5.14 yards per carry. Only four running backs from the 2016 season averaged 5.0 yards per carry or more (LeSean McCoy, Jordan Howard, Mark Ingram and Ezekiel Elliot). Two of the four were the first- and second-leading rushers in the NFL that year, and all four were in the top 11 in ground production.
Hyde, according to his averages, would likely be a top-5 to -7 rusher if he had a workload akin to those players.
But over his career he’s averaged 183 carries per year, and he’s never even had 220 totes in a season, which is still below the bare minimum for a traditional feature back. To shed more light on the lack of touches, of the 12 running backs that eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing last year, nine had at least 260 attempts. Hyde’s carry totals put him more alongside players like Jeremy Hill of the Bengals and Isaiah Crowell of the Browns, who split work in the backfield.
Of the 13 players in 2016 that received more carries and ran for more yards than Hyde, he had better yards-per-carry averages than six of them—a group that included Melvin Gordon, Frank Gore, Lamar Miller, LeGarrette Blount, David Johnson and DeMarco Murray. His per-touch efficiency has been consistent since entering the league.
Despite spotty work, Hyde has managed a 4.3 yards-per-carry average over his career, the same as fellow 2014 draft mate and Falcons superstar Devonta Freeman. That metric alone is a strong measure of what an offense gets per touch and how Hyde can help move the chains. The NFL’s third-leading rusher in 2016, Demarco Murray, averaged 4.4 yards per carry. So, it gets the job done.
When you look at the total body of work, this is a player that demands more involvement.
Dream scenario for a running back
Head coach Kyle 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 where they came from:
Of note, Falcons running back Tevin Coleman, picked 73rd overall in 2015, also had 941 yards from scrimmage and 11 TD in support of Freeman last season. He was not included above, though, due to his unequal share of touches (132 less than Freeman). Also on Atlanta, while 2015 wasn’t Freeman’s 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 guys also finished tops in the league in rushing.
Slaton finished 6th in rushing in 2008; Morris finished 2nd in rushing in 2012, only behind Vikings Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson who ran for 2,097 yards; Morris finished 4th in rushing a year later in 2013; Freeman finished 7th in rushing in 2015, and then 9th in 2016. That’s five top-10 rushers in nine years as an OC, and none of these players were household names entering their respective breakout seasons.
The consistent theme is the offense is set up to feature the running back from a rushing and receiving standpoint, the plays are well-designed, and there is a science to the zone blocking scheme that makes it effective. Another is that the system is seemingly built for anyone. In Shanahan’s nine seasons as an offensive coordinator, he’s featured five rookie running backs.
And in looking at their draft slots, the other evidence we pick up here is that Hyde—picked 57th overall in 2014 out of Ohio State—is the highest-drafted player Shanahan has ever had at his disposal. And given the outrageous production extracted from previous backs, this little factoid makes the mind wander.
Along with Shanahan has been a very important positional teacher, veteran running backs coach Bobby Turner.
The two have been joined at the hip since the 2010 season in Washington, having spent the last seven years together. Before that, Turner spent 14 seasons with Kyle’s father, Mike, in Denver. 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.
There is a relationship, synchronicity and a very successful track record. Apart from Freeman, the duo of Shanahan and Turner has been doing league-best work with players with average ceilings for a decade.
What to expect
Because of the permeability of the offensive line, poor scheme and inadequate coaching, and two incomplete seasons due to injuries, Hyde’s numbers, as respectable as they are, have taken a hit, which has led to unfair criticism. When he is on the field and getting a RB1 workload, he’s produced like one of the best tailbacks in the league.
Secretly, there could be a great player in waiting.
Like many of his Ohio State brethren turned pro, Hyde is a bit of a freak athlete, possessing high-level opposite-end-of-the-spectrum traits that make him hard to bring down. His skills happen to be a package of power and agility. While he’s not a straight-line runner, he has the tools to shake defenders or plow right through them. And, it should be noted, that he has the mentality to be a franchise running back at this level.
Now, this is not to say that Hyde is a lock to play his way into a new deal—he could wind up being a top 10 or even top five rusher in 2017 and not get paid by San Francisco. The data here simply supports the case for Hyde as a player deserving of more work, and to the point where if he receives it, it should not come as a surprise if he produces like an upper-echelon player at his position.
Time will tell, but if he can avoid injuries, the smart money is on Hyde having a breakout year.
Media courtesy Pro Football Focus, 49ers.com, Inside the Pylon