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NFL Preview 2019: Ranking the top six running backs in the NFC West

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NFL Preview 2019: Ranking the top six running backs in the NFC West

It's July, so you know what that means -- the NFL season is just around the corner. 

After an offseason that saw the 49ers soup up their defensive front by adding Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander, San Francisco's 2019 hopes will be determined by how effective Jimmy Garoppolo and his offensive weapons can be in head coach Kyle Shanahan's system. 

While Garoppolo's health is paramount to the 49ers' success, the running game also will have to be effective in order for Garoppolo to shred defenses in the way he's capable of. 

The NFC West has become one of the better divisions in the NFL, and it's the running game, and the ability to stop the run, that could determine who comes out on top in 2019. 

With that being said, here's a look at the top six NFC West running backs ahead of the 2019 season, and no, Todd Gurley isn't No. 1. 

David Johnson 

The versatile running back has had injury issues over the course of his career. After returning from an injury that sidelined him for most of the 2017 season, the Cardinals were expecting a bounce-back year from Johnson in 2018. But, due to a bad offensive line and an uninspiring passing attack, Johnson struggled, rushing for only 940 yards and seven touchdowns. 

Enter: Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray. 

The Cardinals' revamped their franchise by drafting the reigning Heisman Trophy winner with the No. 1 overall pick and pairing him with the Air Raid master from Texas Tech. With an electric dual-threat quarterback now sharing the backfield with him and an offense that won't be stuck in 1981 (great year, bad offense), DJ could return to his 2016 from that saw him rush for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns while also amassing 879 yards and four touchdowns through the air. 

Chris Carson 

Despite head coach Pete Carroll claiming that there is no clear starter between Carson and second-year back Rashaad Penny, it was clear last season that Carson was the top dog. Carson averaged 4.7 yards per carry while gaining 1,151 yards for the Seahawks in 2018.

Seattle ran the ball the second-most of any team in the NFL, and if they stick to that ground-and-pound offensive style, Carson should once again be a productive back. 

Todd Gurley

I'm not ready to sell all of my Gurley stock just yet, but the knee issues are a really bad sign. Gone are the days of Gurley being a workhorse. Gone are the days of him being a touchdown machine. The torn ACL Gurley suffered in 2014 looks to have finally caught up to him.

He was hampered by knee swelling and arthritis for most of the 2018 season, even if the Rams won't admit it, and it looks like the Rams no longer can count on him to carry the load. Still, if Gurley can heal up enough to be 80 percent of what he was in 2017, that's a damn good running back. 

Tevin Coleman

The 49ers brought their offense a present in March when they signed Coleman at the start of the new league year. The Indiana product has been a solid back during his career in Atlanta and thrived under then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's direction in 2016 season. 

Now reunited with Shanahan, Coleman should give the 49ers and Garoppolo an electric option out of the backfield both in the run and the passing game. I expect Coleman to have a solid season by the Bay.

Jerick McKinnon

McKinnon was the 49ers' shiny new toy heading into last season, but a torn ACL quickly ended the speedy back's first year in SF. 

Now, McKinnon returns to a crowded backfield that includes the aforementioned Coleman and Matt Breida. Expect the 49ers to ease McKinnon back into play via the passing game where he can eat up chunks of yards quickly with his speed. 

If McKinnon still has the look of the player he was with the Minnesota Vikings, he'll be a useful weapon on outside runs, as well as screens and dump-offs. Health is the main concern, but he can be a solid role player to help Shanahan's offense move the chains. 

[RELATED: PFF says Staley one of the best of his generation]

Rashaad Penny

While Carson figures to be the bell cow in Seattle, Penny certainly will get his looks in the Pacific Northwest. 

The San Diego State product showed electric flashes during his rookie season, but he struggled to stay on the field. If healthy, he and Carson give Seattle a dynamic 1-2 backfield punch. 

49ers' Ross Dwelley remains humble despite breakout game vs. Cardinals

49ers' Ross Dwelley remains humble despite breakout game vs. Cardinals

SANTA CLARA — If your job description was modified every week, how willing and able would you be adapting to the demands of your superiors? 

That’s exactly what 49ers tight end Ross Dwelley has done successfully week after week in the first six starts of his career. He has adjusted his play for injured players at fullback, offensive line and of course, tight end, in a seamless fashion.

Dwelley has even been given the nickname “Baby George” by his teammates for how similar he is becoming to Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, however, may have just given Dwelley a new moniker. 

“Yeah, he’s kind of the Swiss army knife in our offense right now,” Garoppolo said. “He does a little bit of everything, lines up split out at receiver sometimes, so you’ve got to tip your hat to him. 

“He’s had a lot on his plate the last however many weeks just with guys being down. He doesn’t even hesitate. He just attacks it, gets the formation and goes out there and performs. When his number is called, he does a great job.”

With all the praise he has been given over the last few weeks, Dwelley remains soft spoken and humble. His first answers in interviews always point to the closeness of the locker room and the support he has been given, even though he has been the one doing the extra credit work. 

“We have a lot of guys on this team stepping up when when guys go down,” Dwelley said when asked about filling in for Kittle. “It just speaks to how special this team is overall. We all got each others backs and we all just try to step up when we need to.” 

Dwelley might not have actually lined up on the offensive line but his play definitely supported backups Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill when he stepped in for fullback Kyle Juszczyk who was nursing a knee injury. Coach Kyle Shanahan gave a lot of credit to the second-year tight end for all of the things he does that don’t show up on the stats sheet. 

“Ross has been great,” Shanahan said. “He’s been great all year. He was unbelievable stepping up, taking over for Juice when Juice was out and he’s been great stepping up for Kittle when he’s been out. 

“Ross has been one of the better football players on our team this year and doesn’t get a lot of accolades because he’s not going to sit there and get a bunch of explosive plays, but he’s as good of a football player as we’ve got going right now.”

Dwelley’s hard work paid off in the 49ers 36-26 victory over the Cardinals. Half of his four receptions went for touchdowns, the first two of his career. While Shanahan called the plays for Dwelley’s trips to the end zone, in a light-heartened manner he wants to make sure his tight end doesn’t get over confident.

[RELATED: Kittle impressed by Dwelley's play]

Dwelley’s low yards per catch average for the season are a constant point of reference by Shanahan to keep his player in check. While Dwelley currently is averaging 4.7 yards per reception, up until Week 9, it barely stood at one yard. 

“It’s fun to mess with him,” Shanahan said. “I mean, we respect the heck out of him. I said he was the best football player on our team yesterday, so I don’t mind messing with his average. He also had a 14-yarder called back so that’s where he got messed up. Or it was 10 yards I’m not sure. It’s better to keep his average down just to keep him humble. You know, we don’t want him to get carried away."

49ers' Dee Ford could miss a couple games, coach Kyle Shanahan says

49ers' Dee Ford could miss a couple games, coach Kyle Shanahan says

SANTA CLARA – The 49ers could be down another edge rusher on Sunday night, as it appears defensive end Dee Ford is unlikely to play against the Green Bay Packers.

Ford sustained a right hamstring strain on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals while throwing Kyler Murray for a 5-yard sack in the second quarter of the 49ers’ 36-26 victory at Levi’s Stadium. Ford ranks third on the team with 6.5 sacks.

“Any time you have a hamstring strain, there is concern it could be a couple of weeks,” coach Kyle Shanahan said on Monday.

The 49ers hope to get tight end George Kittle back on the field after missing two games with undisclosed knee and ankle issues. Shanahan declined to identify the nature of Kittle’s injuries.

“I know it was enough to keep most people out for some time, which is has for George,” Shanahan said. “He’s missed two games now, and I know it will go down to the wire again this week. But hoping this week will be different.”

The 49ers (9-1) have a huge NFC matchup on Sunday night against the Packers (8-2). The 49ers lead the race in the NFC West, as well as home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Seattle Seahawks (8-2) are one game behind the 49ers for the division lead. The New Orleans Saints (8-2) are also in the mix for home-field advantage.

Shanahan said running back Matt Breida (ankle) and kicker Robbie Gould (right quadriceps) are uncertain for participation in practice on Wednesday due to their injuries. Gould has missed two games, while Breida sat out Sunday’s game.

[RELATED: Why Bosa believes Cardinals made right call with Kyler]

Wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders (ribs) and Deebo Samuel (shoulder) played Sunday but are uncertain for practice participation on Wednesday. Their availability will be determined later in the week.

Nose tackle D.J. Jones (groin) and left tackle Joe Staley (finger) are not expected to be available this week due to their injuries.