Camp Battles: Which 49ers RB Will Emerge as RB1?

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The San Francisco 49ers have thrown a lot of different running backs into the ring over the past four years. Will 2021 give us a clear-cut RB1 in Kyle Shanahan’s offense?

A yearly tradition for San Francisco 49ers fans is watching camp battles to see who emerges to start as the team’s principal running back. Gone are the days of Gore and Hyde. They were traded in for the patchwork quilt of Breida, Morris, Coleman, Mostert, Wilson Jr., Juszczyk, and McKinnon.

With the 2021 Draft complete, new names are being bandied about. The 49ers added Trey Sermon with their third-round pick — 88th overall — and Elijah Mitchell with their sixth-round selection, 194th overall. Will things continue to be spread among the masses or can one of these backs take over?

Why should we care?

Looking at the above list of players, no one would mistake the names under the Niners’ Shanahan era for fantasy studs. Is it really worth our time trying to figure out this mess? Yes, yes it is. Instead of looking at the fantasy finishes of these players individually, it is important to take a step back and get the 30,000-foot view of this situation. 

Starting with the 2020 season, the San Francisco 49ers ranked third in fantasy points from the running back position (497.6 – PPR scoring), trailing only the New Orleans Saints (541.2) and the Indianapolis Colts (515.9). Let’s step back and take an even broader view. The past five seasons show that the 49ers rank fourth in fantasy points from the running back position.

Kyle Shanahan has been HC for four of those last five seasons. One of the reasons there is so much consistency, from a fantasy perspective, is that Shanahan has averaged 135.75 targets to the running back position for the past four seasons. This is a big fantasy pie. But, similar to the frustrations we’ve had with the New England backfield, no one single player has gotten a bulk of those touches. 

During his 49ers tenure, the only example we have is in Shanahan’s first year when Carlos Hyde played all 16 games. Hyde finished that year with 299 touches and 1,288 yards, with 350 of those yards coming on 59 receptions and 8 touchdowns. These numbers were good enough to give Hyde RB1 status (RB8 total points, RB12 PPG). Can another Ohio State running back take up that mantle again? 

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Trey Sermon

Trey Sermon had an interesting collegiate career. At Oklahoma, he never really got the chance at an RB1 workload, as Rodney Anderson and Kennedy Brooks both played significant roles during his two healthy years. Sermon also played with 1,000-yard rushing QBs Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts. He ended his 2019 season early due to a knee injury, and 2020 came with a change of scenery and a global pandemic. 

Due to a global pandemic, Ohio State only had a five game regular season in 2020. During that time, Sermon took time to get revved up. Over those five games, he averaged a pretty pedestrian 68.8 yards per game. Then, he went nuclear. In the Big Ten Championship and against Clemson in the College Football Playoffs, he accounted for 60% of his rushing yards and three of his four total touchdowns. We’ve seen a lot of things from Sermon in college, but consistency wasn’t one of them.

Currently, in the IDP Guys ADP, Sermon has already overtaken Raheem Mostert as the first Niner off the board. He’s knocking on the back end of RB2s — currently, the 28th running back off the board. This is placement is not surprising, as rookies often have a twinge of unknown that allows us project the sky as their limit.

So far, we’ve heard all the right things coming out of OTAs. If Sermon can prove that he’s more 2020 CFP than 2020 regular season, the 49ers can shift back to giving a single back a majority of carries. With that, we can see the driving thought process behind Sermon’s surging ADP.

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Raheem Mostert

At the end of 2019, Raheem Mostert was the talk of the town. Over the final five games, he accounted for 448 total yards and 7 touchdowns. Even more impressive, he single-handedly sent the Packers packing in the playoffs, scoring all four of the 49ers’ TDs and obliterating them with 226 total yards. 

EUREKA! We’ve struck gold!

Even to start the 2020 season, Mostert looked to have secured the majority of the RB snaps. Out of the gate, he posted an RB1 week with 151 yards and a touchdown. He scored 18.7 fantasy points in Week 2 even though he left the game with a knee injury, all before halftime. He missed eight games during the rest of the 2020 season. That’s the crux of the argument with Mostert – injury. Out of a possible 81 games in his career, he’s missed 23 of them. 

Mostert burst onto the scene out of nowhere and could fade into the background just as quickly. Already 29 years old at the position with the shortest shelf life, his fantasy relevance could very well have already peaked. Mostert’s ADP will likely have an inverse relationship with that of Sermon. As Sermon climbs in ADP, Mostert will drop.

It will be important to watch this trend, as I believe there is still some gas in the tank for the highly efficient RB. He may eventually be worth the stab for those competing for championships in 2021.

The Rest 

If we’ve learned anything over the past four seasons, it’s that you need to know every name in the 49ers backfield. I’ll briefly explore the rest of the players in the order I think they will provide fantasy relevance.

Elijah Mitchell

Elijah Mitchell is a very good athlete, with speed, burst, and agility. While at Louisiana-Lafayette, he provided solid production in the rushing game and enough in the receiving game. When looking at players to stash, I pretty regularly swing for the fences. Mitchell has the profile that could help him be ready for the opportunity to come out of nowhere, and he could do a pretty convincing Mostert impression.

Wayne Gallman

Wayne Gallman is fine. Last year was our first really good look at him in a larger role. While he wasn’t in a great situation, Gallman put up respectable numbers. What he has over many of the other 49ers’ RBs is experience. While I don’t know if that is particularly important to Kyle Shanahan, if Gallman is seen as a safe, sufficient veteran who can get the job done, he could prove to be fantasy viable again.

Jeff Wilson Jr.

With one of the most unfortunate injuries I’ve ever heard of, Wilson is behind the eight-ball in the pecking order. Best case scenario? He’s back in September, but a return in November is also within his range of outcomes. Wilson ended 2020 as the highest fantasy-scoring San Francisco RB.

He scored 10 touchdowns last year and anytime you have that potential, you have to keep that possibility in the back of your mind. Wilson Jr. is still young — 25 — is familiar with and comfortable in the system and he can be had for a song.

Jamycal Hasty

A favorite deep sleeper last offseason, Jamycal Hasty didn’t seize the opportunity as many would have hoped. Outside of extremely deep leagues, he’s likely sitting on many waiver wires. It will take a series of circumstances — that will have to line up rather perfectly — to move Hasty high enough to make fantasy managers care. At the same time, you have to be ready to pounce if those stars align.

My 49ers Plan of Attack

In dynasty, I think the risk of drafting Sermon at his current price is one I’m willing to take. If you are able to get him at RB3 prices (even if they sneak up into late RB2 prices), I’m in. Even if it doesn’t all click this year, Mostert is a UDFA after the 2021 season. For that reason, I feel most comfortable with the flashes and ceiling that I see when watching Sermon and think he has the greatest shot at the biggest workload.

If I miss out on Sermon, I will grab any of these others. Maybe even two.

In Kyle Shanahan’s Press Conference after Day Two of the 2021 NFL Draft, this is how he discussed the running back position:

“I look at it as you’re just trying to find NFL backs that you always feel have the ability to be a starter,” Shanahan said. “We’ve never looked for a one back, a two back, a three back, a four back. We always look for guys that we think can play as a starter, whether they are or not.

For that reason, and knowing Shanahan’s coaching philosophy, any player who is on the Niners’ roster in the regular season has the chance to contribute to our fantasy teams.

Thanks for checking out my thoughts on the 49ers backfield! How do these running backs fit into your draft plan? Tell me your thoughts on Twitter – find me @FantasyOutlaw. You can also check out my other recent articles on Carson Wentz’s new start in Indy and Ten Individual Defensive Players Poised for an Increased Workload.

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