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NFL Draft

Can Raheem Mostert Be The 49ers’ Lead Back?

  • The Draft Network
  • June 26, 2020
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Figuring out the San Francisco 49ers’ backfield is no task for the faint of heart. Head coach Kyle Shanahan has been pulling 100-yard rushers from a hat since he took over the offense there, and his wide zone approach has spread like wildfire accordingly. The most recent success story belongs to perpetual underdog Raheem Mostert, who grabbed national attention with his 220-yard, four-touchdown performance against the Green Bay Packers in the 2019 NFC Championship game. Unfortunately, Mostert’s place on the pedestal of the Niners’ offensive engine may be short-lived.

San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan has been coordinating offenses since 2009 with the Houston Texans, when Steve Slaton was comfortably his bell-cow back. Slaton averaged 4.8 yards/carry over 16 games, totaling 1,282 yards, almost 1,000 more than the next closest back on the roster. Shanahan would again have a bell cow with the Washington Redskins in 2012, when Alfred Morris had 1,613 yards on 335 carries—the second-best rusher on the team was rookie QB Robert Griffin III—and again in 2013, when Morris had 276 carries and 1,275 yards. 

Since then, Shanahan has had a pretty clear 1-2 dichotomy in the backfield. In 2015 with the Falcons, Devonta Freeman had 17.7 attempts/game to Tevin Coleman’s 7.3, but Coleman wasn’t available for the entire season. Coleman was healthier in 2016, when the touches were more evenly distributed (14.2 to 9.1), and when Shanahan took over the head coaching gig in San Francisco, he went to a similar split between Carlos Hyde and Matt Breida.

And then, in 2018 and 2019, things got extremely weird. Injuries led to games in which Brieda, Morris, Jeff Wilson, Mostert, and Coleman once again were the leading ball-carriers. Mostert would end up the primary by the end of 2019, grabbing more than 50% of the snaps in the final five contests of the regular season as Coleman struggled with health.

Now, in 2020, Breida has been traded to Miami, leaving Mostert, Coleman, and big-money 2018 free agent Jerick McKinnon on the running back depth chart. McKinnon has missed each of the last two seasons with an ACL injury in 2018, and then another surgery on the same knee during 2019 training camp. How he fits into the riddle of the Shanahan backfield is unclear.

So if the battle for primary touches is between Mostert and Coleman, the edge goes to Mostert off of their recent performances. Coleman only out-touched Mostert once in the Niners’ final eight games of the year, and Mostert was a more efficient player on that higher volume. Mostert is also a better bet for clean health than Coleman, as Coleman has had multiple ankle sprains and concussions in his career, while Mostert only has the broken arm that ended his 2018 season. 

However, there is little reason to suspect that Mostert will dominate as a true bell-cow back. Mostert continued to see snaps on special teams even throughout his increased usage in the backfield, totaling 190 snaps on the third unit in 2019 as compared to his 360 offensive downs. In order to continue using Mostert as a punt gunner and vice, as well as a kick returner, the Niners will want to cut down on Mostert’s offensive snaps.

It’s also worth noting that, even as his usage went up, Mostert remained the least involved back in the passing game, only accruing 22 targets on his 360 offensive snaps, as opposed to Breida’s 22 on 255 snaps and Coleman’s 30 on 381 snaps. If McKinnon returns in any capacity, he is by far the most experienced receiver in the San Francisco backfield and figures to be first in line for that role as well.

Altogether, you have a crowded backfield, an offensive designer that has trended toward riding the hot hand in his backfield, and what looks to be a bit of an outlier season for the journeyman Mostert, who has bounced across almost a quarter of the NFL in his five years in the league. Mostert’s skill set as an explosive, smaller, denser back serves the Shanahan offense well, but Shanahan has always been able to get something out of his running game—the very same logic that details Mostert’s rise could detail the rise of UDFA JaMycal Hasty, another shorter and denser speed back with a track background and special teams value, just like Mostert. If Mostert loses a few weeks to injury or starts to struggle, he doesn’t have a firm grip on that starting job.

Mostert has been a great waiver wire add and crucial spark plug for the Niners over their offensive rejuvenation in the last two seasons. But in that he is no longer the new wave and now the top dog, the rolling wheel of the San Francisco backfield seems inevitable, whether that’s in the early weeks of this season or in seasons to come. For as long as Mostert keeps up his Herculean production in 2019 he’ll remain in charge, but the purgatory of a committee approach is coming his way, whether fantasy managers like it or not.

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