Jeff Wilson

49ers have hard decisions to make with running backs in 2020 offseason

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USATSI

49ers have hard decisions to make with running backs in 2020 offseason

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- During the 2019 offseason, the 49ers arguably had the most stacked room of running backs in the league. 

Many football pundits speculated how coach Kyle Shanahan was going to spread out carries and still keep everyone happy. Before the regular season even began, however, that changed drastically as setbacks from an ACL injury forced Jerick McKinnon to sit out a second consecutive season. 

As the season unfolded, both Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida missed multiple games with ankle injuries, forcing the 49ers to promote Jeff Wilson Jr. from the practice squad. 

Raheem Mostert, who has been a standout on special teams throughout his five-year career, finished the season leading the team in rushing yards (772) and touchdowns (10). 

“It’s two years in a row that we’ve gone in with four backs and we’ve needed all four,” Shanahan said Tuesday at the NFL Scouting Combine. “It’s something that I used to look at as a luxury, and now I’m almost feeling like it’s a necessity.”

Shanahan and general manager John Lynch now face tough decisions as they look to solidify the backfield for the 2020 season. While they would prefer to keep the group they have together, they know that will nearly be impossible. 

“I would love to keep it going forward,” Shanahan said. “I think the group that we had last year showed where we could get with them, but it’s always hard to do that. I hope that we can. It’s not as simple as just tying all the running backs together, it’s how you compare them to the other positions and everything.”  

Breida has reached the end of his three-year undrafted rookie contract, and is set to become an unrestricted free agent. A higher price tag could make re-signing him a challenge. McKinnon is set to make $6.5 million with a cap hit of over $8.5 million. Lynch is keeping the lines of communication open with both parties, but is realistic about the challenges ahead.

Restructuring McKinnon's contract could help the 49ers cap situation and potentially keep him on the roster for 2020. 

[RELATED: 49ers have solid running backs, but group lacks something]

“I think this week will be important in talking with his representative in trying to find something that works for both sides to try to come back and see Jerick on the field,” Lynch said on Tuesday. “He’s doing well.

“He was cleared at the end of the season, so his hard work has served him well. I think as we’ve learned before, the nature of that position, not an easy position. There’s being cleared and then there’s actually playing football. So we have to kind of hold our breath on that, but we are encouraged with the way it’s gone.” 

Coleman is signed through 2020 and Mostert’s contract runs through 2021. Jeff Wilson is an exclusive rights free agent, which means if the 49ers offer him a one-year contract and the league minimum, he cannot negotiate with other teams. 

Jeff Wilson Jr. explains why 49ers' running backs are egoless, tight knit

Jeff Wilson Jr. explains why 49ers' running backs are egoless, tight knit

The 49ers found the perfect answer for a running-back-by-committee approach in 2019. There wasn't one star in the rotation, yet they had the second-most rushing yards in the NFL with 2,305. 

They all have the same thing in common: At one point or another, each of San Francisco's running backs has been counted out. They all have an underdog's mentality. And yet, they're all extremely unselfish. 

"In our room, if you check our pasts, all of us have a similar background," 49ers running back Jeff Wilson Jr. said Wednesday morning to Steve Wyche on NFL Network's "NFL All Access." "We all come from an undrafted past where we had to take the back road. And all that helps us because we know what each other are going through. If one person's going through it, then one person's been through it.

"And for me, I'm just now entering into it. All those guys have been through the same similar situations, so we feed off each other. I feel like that alone has helped our bond to become stronger." 

Wilson went undrafted in the 2018 NFL Draft. Raheem Mostert, the 49ers' leading rusher, went undrafted in the 2015 draft. Same goes for Matt Breida in 2017. 

Tevin Coleman (third round in 2015) and Jerick McKinnon (third round in 2014) were the only running backs in the 49ers' film room who once were drafted. McKinnon has missed the last two seasons with knee injuries, but Wilson still mentioned him among the group. 

Wilson played in 10 regular-season games in 2019 and rushed for only 105 yards. However, he scored four rushing touchdowns, good for third on the team. He also scored one receiving touchdown, and had a 20-yard reception in the 49ers' Super Bowl LIV loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. 

[RELATED: 49ers have solid running backs, but group lacks something]

While Wilson is a part of a deep running back group, he's using a message from Mostert to stay motivated. Mostert took him to breakfast when Wilson first joined the 49ers and told his younger teammate, "It's gonna be a long road. You just gotta keep your head down and know what you're capable of on the inside and never let nobody deter you from that, and you'll be fine."

That seems to be a common theme for all of the 49ers' running backs. So far, their perseverance has paid off.

49ers roster analysis: Running backs combine to make formidable group

49ers roster analysis: Running backs combine to make formidable group

This is the second installment of a nine-part series that examines the 49ers’ roster coming out of the 2019 season, looks ahead to 2020, and outlines the offseason challenges facing general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan on a position-by-position basis.

Tuesday, a look at the 49ers’ running backs.

Under contract (signed through)

-FB Kyle Juszczyk (2020)
-Tevin Coleman (2020)
-Raheem Mostert (2021)
-Jerick McKinnon (2021)

Juszczyk’s contract includes a club option for $5.55 million, which does not seem to be in question at all for what he gives the team.

Coleman is scheduled to earn $4.9 million in salary and bonuses.

McKinnon, who did not appear in a game in his first two seasons with the 49ers due to a knee injury, will certainly not be back on his scheduled pay of $6.8 million. But the 49ers might be inclined to see if they can work out a low-level one-year deal to keep him around.

Expiring contracts

-Matt Breida (RFA)
-Jeff Wilson (ERFA)

Breida’s salary is scheduled to jump from $645,000 to $2.144 million if the 49ers give him the lowest free-agent tender. That is a decision that could go either way.

Breida can negotiate with other teams beginning March 16. If the 49ers give him the low-level tender, the club would not receive any compensation if another team signs him to an offer sheet and the 49ers decline to match.

As an exclusive-rights free agent, Wilson has no outside negotiating power. The 49ers would retain his rights with a qualifying offer.

What needs to happen

First things first, the 49ers have to figure out what they want to do with the running backs who finished last season with the club.

Juszczyk is a no-brainer. The 49ers could also look to extend him this offseason to lower his cap number for 2020 while also making sure they keep him under club control for a couple more seasons.

Coleman is scheduled to make $4.9 million, which seems reasonable for a player who was the primary starter and came through big in the playoff opener. Breida’s jump in salary never seemed to be much in question until the end of the season when he rarely got on the field.

McKinnon simply cannot come back on his scheduled salary. But he said he wants to return and he’s fully aware the only way that happens if he agrees to a dramatic pay reduction. If McKinnon returns to his pre-injury form, he would give the 49ers the kind of route-runner out of the backfield that they do not currently have on their roster.

Wilson is the best route-runner out of the backfield, so he could get an opportunity to see more action as a third-down back. Or the 49ers could keep their eye on happenings around the league to see if Atlanta parts ways with Devonte Freeman in a cost-cutting move.

[RELATED: 49ers roster analysis: QBs in good shape entering 2020 season]

Expectations

The 49ers found something that worked with Mostert and Coleman. They also learned over the past three seasons that it makes sense to have three or four running backs who are capable of sharing the load.

A year ago, Mostert had his spot on the 49ers’ roster wrapped up because of his ability on special teams. Now, he enters the offseason as a dynamic presence in the backfield. Regardless of the rest of the depth chart at running back, Mostert should get plenty of carries in 2020.

The 49ers had to be pleased with the production from the running backs. Mostert, Breida and Coleman each rushed for 500-plus yards. Wilson was very good when he was given an opportunity, too.

The area where the running backs must improve is in the passing game. Coach Kyle Shanahan wants more options on third downs to take advantage of areas of the defense he feels he can exploit.

Whether it’s bringing back McKinnon, developing one of the other backs or going outside to bring in a proven pass-catcher, the 49ers might not take that next step on offense until they put a great route-runner in their backfield on third downs.