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Going Deep

Does Shanahan Have RB Commitment Issues?

by Hayden Winks
Updated On: August 2, 2020, 12:27 pm ET

The 49ers have a top-three rushing offense. That’s mostly because they have Kyle Shanahan designing a complex rushing scheme that uses a fullback, pulling lineman, and pre-snap motion more than most teams. I think most are in agreement that the 49ers are going to be able to run the ball in 2020. The debate within fantasy circles is if Shanahan will commit to one running back throughout the course of the season.

If we knew one back was set to be the clear-cut No. 1 rusher in San Francisco, he’d be a second-round pick in drafts. That’s obviously not the case with Raheem Mostert (ADP: 48th overall, RB24), Tevin Coleman (ADP: 96th overall, RB38), and Jerick McKinnon (ADP: 225th overall, RB67) going well after the first two rounds. My question is if that’s justified, thus why I wrote this column. To figure out if Shanahan has commitment issues, I dug deep into Shanahan’s backfields dating back to 2008 when he was the offensive coordinator for the first time.

 

Kyle Shanahan’s History with Running Backs

Year

Week 1 Starter

Context

Outcome

2008

Steve Slaton

3rd-round rookie

268 carries, 59 targets

2009

Steve Slaton

2-year pro (3rd rounder)

Lost job (3.1 YPC)

2010

Clinton Portis

9-year pro (last season)

Missed 11 games

2011

Tim Hightower

5th-rounder on 2nd team

Missed 11 games

2012

Alfred Morris

6th-round rookie

335 carries, 16 targets

2013

Alfred Morris

2-year pro (6th rounder)

276 carries, 12 targets

2014

Ben Tate

2nd-round bust on 2nd team

Cut midseason (3.1 YPC)

2015

Devonta Freeman*

2-year pro (4th rounder)

265 carries, 97 targets

2016

Devonta Freeman

3-year pro (4th rounder)

227 carries, 65 targets

2017

Carlos Hyde

4-year pro (2nd rounder)

240 carries, 88 targets

2018

Alfred Morris

30-year-old (6th rounder)

RBBC with Breida

2019

Tevin Coleman

3rd-round bust on 2nd team

Injured, then RBBC

2020

Raheem Mostert

6-year pro (UDFA)

?

 

Shanahan has essentially had very little to work with at running back for his entire career, but let’s dig deeper before I make my 2020 projection.

 

2008 - Texans OC - 16th in Rush Attempts

Running Back

GS

CAR

TAR

Steve Slaton

16

268

59

Ahman Green

0

74

14

Ryan Moats

0

26

5

GS = Games Started, CAR = Carries, TAR = Targets

 

A third-round rookie out of West Virginia, Slaton took the job from the first drive of Week 1 and ran with it. Slaton averaged 16.75 carries and 3.7 per game on the Texans’ 8-8 team. Green (a 10-year veteran) only played to give Slaton a breather.

 

2009 - Texans OC - 20th in Rush Attempts

Running Back

GS

CAR

TAR

Steve Slaton

10

131

55

Ryan Moats

2

101

15

Chris Brown

4

79

21

 

Fresh off a 327-touch rookie season, Slaton was the unquestioned starter entering 2009. He ultimately had a horrid start to the season and was benched after Week 7. Slaton had averaged just 3.1 yards per carry to that point. Afterwards, Moats and Brown split starts but both were former busts. 2009 actually ended up being their final seasons in the league.

 

2010 - Washington OC - 31st in Rush Attempts

Running Back

GS

CAR

TAR

Ryan Torain

8

164

27

Keiland Williams

3

65

58

Clinton Portis

5

54

9

 

In Shanahan’s first season in Washington, he had Portis (a nine-year veteran) as his Week 1 starter. Portis played four healthy games to begin the year, but he only played one more game afterwards with concussions and leg injuries sidelining him. If Portis was healthy, he very likely would’ve been the year-long starter. Instead, Torain (a former 5th-rounder on his second team) and Williams (a UDFA) split starts to close the year.

 

2011 - Washington OC - 25th in Rush Attempts

Running Back

GS

CAR

TAR

Roy Helu

5

151

59

Tim Hightower

5

84

15

Ryan Torian

4

59

9

 

With Portis retired, Washington brought in Hightower (a four-year veteran and former 5th rounder) to start in 2011. Hightower averaged 16.8 carries in his five early-season games, but he tore his ACL in October, ending his reign as the clear-cut starter. Torian was the incumbent veteran in line for the next set of starts, but Helu (a 4th-round rookie) finished the year as the starter after Torian proved ineffective.

 

2012 - Washington OC - 3rd in Rush Attempts

Running Back

GS

CAR

TAR

Alfred Morris

16

335

16

Evan Royster

0

23

23

Brandon Banks

0

7

8

 

Entering Week 1, running back was a total mystery, but Morris (a 6th-round rookie) took the job after a huge season opener. He held the job all year long, ultimately finishing with 1,613 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. Morris, however, only caught 11 passes with Robert Griffin looking to scramble rather than check down to his running back.

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2013 - Washington OC - 13th in Rush Attempts

Running Back

GS

CAR

TAR

Alfred Morris

16

276

12

Roy Helu

0

86

42

Darrel Young

0

62

9

 

Coming off a monster rookie season, Morris continued to operate as Washington’s clear-cut lead back with Helu stepping in on passing downs. Morris totaled 1,275 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 17.3 carries per game. Once again, Morris didn’t show up as a receiver (9 receptions). Keep in mind that he did weigh 222-plus pounds, never caught passes in college at Florida Atlantic, and had a 4.67-second forty.
 

2014 - Browns OC - 6th in Rush Attempts

Running Back

GS

CAR

TAR

Terrance West

7

171

13

Isaiah Crowell

4

148

14

Ben Tate

5

106

12

 

In his lone season with the Browns, Shanahan didn’t have a talented incumbent starter. Tate (a former 2nd-round bust from Houston) opened up the year as the lead back, but he failed and was cut midseason after averaging 3.14 yards per carry through seven weeks. West (a 3rd-round rookie) also had chances at starting but averaged 3.94 yards per carry. Their failures allowed Crowell (a UDFA rookie) to make end-of-year starts.
 

2015 - Falcons OC - 16th in Rush Attempts

Running Back

GS

CAR

TAR

Devonta Freeman

13

265

97

Tevin Coleman

3

87

11

Terron Ward

0

29

13

 

Shanahan didn’t have an established starting running back entering the 2015 NFL Draft, so the team selected Coleman in the 3rd round. Coleman started the first two weeks of the season, but left with an injury in Week 2 and didn’t return until Week 5. His multi-week absence opened the door for Freeman (a second-year pro and former 4th-rounder) to take the job over. In Freeman’s 12 healthy games as the starter, he averaged 20.0 carries and 7.1 targets. Freeman had 1,056 rushing yards, 11 rushing touchdowns, and 73 receptions in total.
 

2016 - Falcons OC - 12th in Rush Attempts

Running Back

GS

CAR

TAR

Devonta Freeman

16

227

65

Tevin Coleman

0

118

40

Terron Ward

0

31

2

 

After a breakout season, Freeman was the unquestioned starter in 2016 and Shanahan kept it that way. Freeman finished with another 1,079 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns, and 54 receptions. Meanwhile, Coleman operated as a third-down rotational back who caught 31 passes. In his two seasons with Shanahan in Atlanta, Coleman averaged 36.5 rushing yards on 8.2 carries per game, adding 1.3 receptions as a receiver.
 

2017 - 49ers HC - 22nd in Rush Attempts

Running Back

GS

CAR

TAR

Carlos Hyde

16

240

88

Matt Breida

0

105

36

Raheem Mostert

0

6

0

 

In his first season in San Francisco, Shanahan already had an incumbent starter in Hyde, a former 2nd-rounder who started 13 games and rushed for 988 yards the year prior. Hyde kept his starting job the entire season under Shanahan, rushing for 938 yards and eight touchdowns. Hyde notably set a new career-high with 59 receptions on 88 targets. Breida, meanwhile, saw his role expand late in the season (10.4 carries per game in Weeks 13-17) after Shanahan pivoted towards younger talents when the team was 1-10. Mostert was just a special teamer at this point.
 

2018 - 49ers HC - 11th in Rush Attempts

Running Back

GS

CAR

TAR

Matt Breida

13

153

31

Alfred Morris

1

111

13

Jeff Wilson

2

66

15

Raheem Mostert

0

34

7

 

Shanahan didn’t re-sign Hyde in 2018, leaving the 49ers without a clear-cut starter. San Francisco signed Morris who had big years under Shanahan way back in 2012 and 2013 but was coming off two totally wasted years with Dallas. Morris received the veteran nod in Week 1, but he split the backfield nearly down the middle with Breida (a second-year UDFA). Breida ended up crushing Morris in yards per carry, 5.3 to 3.9. However, smashing both Breida and Morris in yards per carry was Mostert (7.7 YPC), who carved out a role in the middle season. Unfortunately, Mostert landed on injured reserve with a broken arm right as he began seeing more touches.
 

2019 - 49ers HC - 2nd in Rush Attempts

Because this was the most recent season, I want to go extra deep in 2019.

Week 1 vs. TB

GS

CAR

TAR

Tevin Coleman

1

6

3

Matt Breida

0

15

1

Raheem Mostert

0

9

1

 

Shanahan reunited with Coleman in 2019 after drafting him in 2016 while with the Falcons. Coleman started Week 1, but he left early with an injury. Breida (the primary starter in 2018) saw the next snaps following Coleman’s mid-game injury. He turned 15 carries into 37 yards. Meanwhile, Mostert showed far more burst, turning nine carries into 40 yards.

 

Weeks 2-3

GS

CAR

TAR

Matt Breida

2

26

3

Raheem Mostert

0

25

3

Jeff Wilson

0

18

0

 

Coleman missed two games, leaving Breida and Mostert to fight for the lead back spot. They essentially had similar stat lines with Wilson operating as the goal-line vulture.

 

Weeks 5-12

GS

CAR

TAR

Tevin Coleman

5

109

23

Matt Breida

3

68

13

Raheem Mostert

0

39

11

 

When Coleman returned from injury, he found himself as the 1A to Breida’s 1B. Both backs sprinkled in big weeks with forgettable weeks. Mostert was a distant third option during this stretch. 

 

Weeks 13-17

GS

CAR

TAR

Raheem Mostert

0

64

9

Tevin Coleman

5

22

4

Matt Breida

0

14

4

 

There was a changing of the guard in Week 13. Mostert rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries against the Ravens. That performance kicked off Mostert’s late-season run, and it corresponded with Coleman’s midseason decline. During those eight games from Weeks 5-12, Coleman averaged just 3.9 yards per carry despite the 49ers’ ridiculously efficient rushing scheme.

 

Divisional Round

GS

CAR

TAR

Tevin Coleman

0

22

0

Raheem Mostert

0

12

0

Matt Breida

1

8

0

 

Breida started the home playoff game against the Vikings, but he fumbled and was sent to the doghouse (and ultimately to Miami via trade this offseason). Coleman took over this game with a 105-2 rushing line on 22 carries. Mostert also was effective (58-0) on eight carries.

 

NFC Championship

GS

CAR

TAR

Raheem Mostert

0

29

2

Tevin Coleman

1

6

0

Matt Breida

0

1

0

 

Coleman received the start against the Packers, but he once again left early. This time with a dislocated shoulder. Mostert took advantage of Coleman’s absence by breaking off for 220 yards and four rushing touchdowns, leading the 49ers to a 37-20 blowout win.

 

Super Bowl

GS

CAR

TAR

Raheem Mostert

0

12

1

Tevin Coleman

1

5

1

Matt Breida

0

0

0

 

Coleman “started”, but Mostert played 62% of the 49ers’ offensive snaps against the Chiefs. Mostert added 58 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries (4.8 YPC). Meanwhile, Breida was left on the sideline.

 

2020 Outlook

I don’t buy the narrative that Shanahan rides the hot hand any more than any other NFL head coach. Of course, when Shanahan doesn’t have a good running back, he filters through the depth chart to see if his backups can provide a spark, but when Shanahan has had a good back, he was fed. Alfred Morris, Devonta Freeman, and Carlos Hyde are all examples. 

I’d argue that Mostert fits this bill, a back that’s just #GoodAtTheGame (particularly in Shanahan’s scheme) and a player that will demand touches moving forward because of his production. Among running backs with 100 carries last year, Mostert was 1st in yards per carry over expected, 3rd in PFF rushing grade, 3rd in yards after contact per attempt, 3rd in elusive rating, and 5th in breakaway percentage. Some of that will regress, but those numbers are legit good and are clearly on another level compared to Coleman:

 

 

On tape, Mostert just moves at a totally different level, which isn’t a surprise knowing Mostert’s pro day numbers (4.39 speed with a 40-inch vertical). Mostert has produced in every opportunity he’s ever received, dating back to preseason games and the 2018 season before he broke his arm. With Shanahan scheming things up and with the 49ers rolling out an above-average offensive line, I’m expecting Mostert to continue as one of the league’s most efficient runners, which would mean he’d keep his starting job for the season. A 225-touch and eight-touchdown season is within Mostert’s range of outcomes, making him a reasonable upside pick in the fifth round of fantasy drafts. While I’m bullish on Mostert, I’m still a Coleman buyer in the 9th-11th round range, just because of the upside.