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What to do with the 49ers backfield

There is a large amount of hype surrounding the 49ers running backs going into 2020 and it isn’t completely unwarranted. Last season, the 49ers were second in the league in rush attempts and led the league in rushing touchdowns. Their defense finished 8th in 2019, giving up an average of 19.4 points per game. This offseason, the 49ers traded for Trent Williams, who is arguably one of the best offensive tackles in the game. When looking for fantasy opportunities at the running back position, the 49ers backfield checks nearly all the boxes. Then you add Kyle Shanahan’s elite offensive system that has a history of producing elite fantasy running backs. When Shanahan was the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons, Devonte Freeman (their starting running back) finished as the RB#1 in 2015 and as the RB#6 in 2016 in PPR formats. Once he became the head coach for the 49ers in 2017, their lead running back Carlos Hyde finished as the RB#8. With the 49ers backfield looking like fantasy gold, and 123 carries vacated from the departure of Matt Brieda, many fantasy players will be salivating at the potential this backfield has to offer.

The 49ers backfield has all the ingredients for a potential elite fantasy running back, but unfortunately, it is not that straight forward. Over the past two years, one thing has been made certain, Kyle Shanahan does not care about your fantasy football team. Last season alone, Shanahan had three different running backs finish top 5 at the position in a single week. Mostert scored 24 points in week 2 finishing as the RB#3, Breida scored 27 points in week 5 finishing as the RB#4, and Coleman scored 37 points in week 8 finishing as the RB#2. I mention these stats to illustrate how difficult it was for fantasy owners to trust any 49ers running back in 2019. The best example of this inconsistency was in week 13 of the 2019 season when the 49ers played the Baltimore Ravens. Before the game started, Tevin Coleman was named the starter, giving fantasy owners an indication to add him to their lineups. Despite being named the starter, Coleman only saw five carries and was on the field for 18% of the snaps. Meanwhile, Raheem Mostert (the alleged backup) saw 74% of the snaps and received 19 carries. In the post-game interview, Shanahan claimed that Coleman didn’t do anything wrong nor was he injured, rather Mostert was simply more efficient with the opportunities he got, and they “stuck with the hot hand”. This “hot hand” mentality Shanahan has, of giving carries to whoever does best with their opportunity, is a huge red flag for fantasy and adds deep layers of risk to all running backs in that backfield.

Running Backs

Among the 49ers running backs being drafted, Raheem Mostert appears to be the most popular. Mostert was the RB#8 in weeks 12-17, getting the majority of the 49ers carries. The world also watched him score four touchdowns against the Packers in the NFC Conference Championship game and witnessed him lead that backfield in carries in the SuperBowl. Now there are reports that Mostert is putting on muscle to handle “200 carries” and rumors that he may sign an extension soon. All of these factors, plus the vacated carries left by Brieda, are skyrocketing his ADP as he appears to be one of the steals of the draft. If we look past the peripheral hype and focus on what Mostert did last season, there are truthfully many reasons for concern. Mostert turned 28 years old this past April, and historically NFL running backs start to statistically decline after the age of 27. For the final six games of the 2019 season, when Mostert was their “lead back”, he only averaged 12.8 carries and 54% of snaps during that period. He was by no means a workhorse but was on pace for 204 carries. He was good in fantasy because he was highly efficient, leading the league with 5.6 yards per carry, and scoring eight touchdowns in a 6 game stretch. All of these stats are screaming regression, as it is unlikely he continues this efficiency in 2020.

Tevin Coleman was the alleged starter for the 49ers going into the 2019 season. According to the fantasy football calculator, Coleman was being drafted in the 5th round as a top 30 running back, but finished 2019 as the RB#39. Compared to Mostert, Coleman’s stats were unimpressive as he averaged 1.6 yards per carry less than Mostert did. As mentioned, Tevin Coleman was named the starter for that backfield multiple times in 2019, but his carries varied from twenty as in week 7 to five carries in week 13. People will point out the team's dedication to Mostert in the playoffs, but Coleman dislocated his shoulder in the NFC Conference game and this limited him even in the SuperBowl. Albert Breer from Sports Illustrated reported back in April that Coleman was a trade candidate for the 49ers, but it has been three months and no actions have taken place. It is important to emphasize that Coleman was drafted to be the starter in San Francisco, and was a total bust in fantasy, scoring under 9 PPR points in 69% of the games he played.

Jerick McKinnon was supposed to be the new workhorse for the 49ers back in 2018. In 2018, he signed a four year 30 million dollar deal, locking him in as their starter. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL in the 2018 preseason, needing surgery and sat out for a year. In the preseason of 2019, he experienced “post-surgical complications” and needed further procedures, leaving him sidelined two years in a row. Player profiler currently has McKinnon as a “high risk” to reinjure that knee, as he still hasn't fully recovered. The 49ers GM John Lynch announced that he was “cautiously optimistic” about McKinnon's return in 2020 as he appears to be on track to start the season. He added that McKinnon has yet to cut confidently on the field, which will be an important milestone for his recovery. Although, as of June 12th, McKinnon's trainer Rischad Whitfield made a statement saying that Jerick was in "the best shape of his life". Many people are completely counting McKinnon out when they make their projections for Mostert, but it is important to highlight the team’s dedication to him. They clearly were high on him back in 2018, and they traded away Matt Brieda, which demonstrated their faith in McKinnon's recovery. If McKinnon is healthy come September, he will be on the field on third down and will demolish any PPR opportunity Coleman or Mostert have.

All of the aforementioned running backs are 27 or older, but the 49ers have a group of young running backs that need to be taken into consideration. Jeff Wilson Jr is only 24 years old and was technically the 4th string running back for the 49ers in 2019. He only saw 27 carries but found the endzone on four different occasions. Another player to keep an eye on is JaMycal Hasty. Hasty is a UDFA out of Baylor, who was not necessarily impressive at the combine. That being said, Matthew Stevens from player profiler compares Hasty’s receiving ability to that of James White. It is even more interesting as they picked Hasty up the very same day they traded Brieda to the Dolphins. I am not claiming that either of these players will have significant roles in 2020, but it would be foolish to completely discount these players and project a full workload elsewhere. Savvy dynasty owners should also keep an eye on Hasty as he is probably on their waiver wire and could be relevant in PPR leagues sooner than later.

2019 Analysis

It is a fool's errand to confidently project what Shanahan will do with his running backs in 2020. The best indicator for the future is to analyze what he did in the past. In 2019, Shanahan spread the carries out inside the 10-yard line. Tevin Coleman received 15 carries, Jeff Wilson Jr saw 10 carries, Raheem Mostert saw 6 carries, and Matt Brieda only had 2 carries inside the 10-yard line. These carries are highly valuable for fantasy and it is important to point out that Coleman led the team in this category. It is also important to mention that Mostert only scored on three of his six carries inside the ten-yard line. This further highlights how large of a role Mostert’s efficiency played in him finding the endzone, as his other five touchdowns came from farther down the field. It is shocking that Jeff Wilson barely saw 27 carries last season, yet 37% of all his carries were given to him inside the ten-yard line. This reality is a huge red flag for any investors in the 49ers backfield as Shanahan’s running back committee usage in the red zone limits any prospects ceiling.

Below are the current contracts the 49ers running backs are signed to:

It is clear from this data that the 49ers are not particularly contractually tied to any of their running backs, further complicating any certainty of who the starter will be. It is important to note that Matt Barrows, from the Athletic, speculates that Mostert will get a contract extension before the start of the 2020 season. If this were to take place, clearly that would lend more confidence to Mostert being the lead back for this team. That being said, as seen multiple times in the past, just because the 49ers give a running back a large contract, doesn’t mean they will be a viable fantasy weapon.

Redraft Values

According to Fantasypros ADP, Raheem Mostert is currently being taken at the end of the 4th round as the RB#24. I am expecting his ADP to continue to rise if he gets extended and more reports come out about him leading this backfield. Mostert is currently being taken over players such as David Montgomery, Mark Ingram, Deebo Samuel, and Kyler Murray. I am drafting these named players over Mostert every day of the week in PPR formats. The combination of coach speak, new contracts, and a fourth-round price tag reminds me a lot of Tevin Coleman in 2019 drafts, and no one was happy they drafted Coleman by the end of the season. The reality is that Mostert does have a high upside and a great opportunity. Nevertheless, drafting Mostert is practically betting a 4th round pick on an injury-prone 28-year-old to average 5 plus yards per carry in 2020. If his efficiency goes down, I believe this will trigger a domino effect where Shanahan will find someone else on that team that can produce better than him. Let’s not forget that Mostert was on that team all of 2019, and it took multiple injuries and crazy efficiency for him to only get 55% of their offensive snaps during the final six weeks of the season.

On the other hand, Tevin Coleman is currently being drafted in the 10th round, and I would classify Coleman as a value at this range. He is being drafted around players like Alexander Mattison and Latavius Murray. Both of the aforementioned running backs are almost exclusively handcuff prospects, while Coleman still has an opportunity to start for his team. For either Mattison or Murray to see significant playing time, they would need a major injury to a player ahead of them. Meanwhile, Coleman has the chance of earning the starting role for the 49ers and could be a valuable piece to your team later in drafts. It is more likely that Mostert will lead this team in carries in 2020, but I would much rather wait six rounds and grab Coleman who could very well finish the season as the 49ers lead back if Mostert slows down.

Overall, whoever is the starting running back for the 49ers will be valuable in fantasy, unfortunately, there is no way to accurately predict who that will be on a week by week basis.

To play devil’s advocate, there is plenty of upside of Mostert if he gets significant volume in that Shanahan scheme. Unfortunately, of all the running backs going in the fourth round (David Johnson, Chris Carson, and Devin Singletary), Mostert has the highest risk of completely losing fantasy value and being a drop candidate halfway through the season. It is players with that type of risk that I am hesitant to invest a top six-round draft pick in. As seen in 2016, if Shanahan were to completely dedicate a full workload to a single player, they have the legitimate opportunity to be the best running back in fantasy. That being said, Shanahan has done nothing in the past two year to indicate that he is willing to stick with a single runner, and his “hot hand” approach gives all players in that backfield a floor so low it could lose you your week.

For more information on the 49ers backfield:



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