By: Stefan Krüger (@Jav95_)
Final Edit: (@Zachhernan)
When the San Francisco 49ers selected Carlos Hyde in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft (57th overall), many thought he would eventually be the successor to aging, yet still very productive 49ers icon Frank Gore. Now entering his fourth season in 2017, Hyde has yet to make the jump in the NFL. He has not had a 1,000 yard rushing season yet, has not received a Pro Bowl nomination and is widely regarded as injury prone.
It is no wonder that a lot of people are over Hyde and want to start fresh at this position. A lot of recent rumors around the NFL suggest that the new 49ers management feels the same way and that they are entertaining the idea of taking a running back as early as the second overall pick in this year’s draft. I mean, it worked out for the Cowboys last year, didn’t it?
The situation may be a bit more complicated than that. Let’s take a closer look.
Coming out of Ohio State University, Hyde showed elite size, run strength and power along with very few weaknesses, basically all the traits you want in a running back in the NFC West. He was the first running back under Urban Meyer at OSU to rush for 1,000 yards in one season and carried the Buckeyes’ offense in his senior year. In 11 games he amassed over 1,500 rushing yards (7.3 YPC), 18 total touchdowns and finished his college career with 9 straight 100-yard performances. In his 4 years in Columbus, he only missed 2 games in total due to injury, a sprained MCL in 2012. The 49ers recognized his talent and even traded up 6 spots to secure his services.
So, what went wrong? Is he one of those great college running backs who can never make the transition to the highest level?
Simple answer: no. Hyde, when on the field, is a true, and very good NFL running back. In his rookie season Frank Gore was still the featured back, so Hyde only saw limited playing time. After rushing for 333 yards and 4 touchdowns on 83 carries, he suffered a knee injury in week 15 and finished the season on IR.
After Gore left the 49ers in free agency, Hyde suddenly found himself atop the team’s depth chart and was poised for a breakout year under new coach Jim Tomsula. He exceeded expectations with a 168 yard, 2 TD performance against the Minnesota Vikings to open the 2015 season. After that, the team as a whole struggled mightily and 6 weeks and 302 yards later he had played his last game for the year, as he suffered a stress fracture in his foot in week 7. And again, he finished the season on IR.
So, 2016 was supposed to be THE year. Chip Kelly had arrived in the Bay and brought a system with him that was partly similar to the one Hyde played in at OSU. On an atrocious team he was one of the few, if not the lone bright spot and was on pace for his first 1,000 yard season in the NFL, despite missing 2 games because of a sprained AC joint, suffered under a pile of bodies in week 6 in Buffalo. Just 12 yards shy of the magic number, though, he took a vicious hit to his left knee by a Rams defender and tore his MCL. And again, he finished the season on IR.
I understand why people think he might be injury prone, but as it turns out he just had a lot of bad luck so far. Looking at the video again, I’m actually surprised he didn’t suffer worse knee injuries.
Back to his play, though. Hyde might not have cracked the preseason goal of 1,000 yards, but he still had a great season. Not only did he work a 16-game pace of 1,215 yards, he also managed to average 4.55 YPC (league avg. 4.19 YPC). This ranks even top 10 among backs with 200+ carries, ahead of players like David Johnson and Demarco Murray. And to put it into more perspective; last year’s leading rusher, and former OSU teammate Ezekiel Elliot averaged 5.07 YPC. That is a difference of just over 0.5 yards. The interesting part: the Cowboys had the 5th best run-blocking offensive line last year, per Football Outsiders, while the 49ers offensive line ranked dead last.
Keep in mind Hyde accomplished that as the only true weapon on this offense. He had hardly any help from the passing game which, as the only one in the NFL last year, managed to average fewer than 200 yards per game. At quarterback, Blaine Gabbert never was a threat to anyone and Colin Kaepernick had his ups and downs. Leading receiver was Jeremy Kerley with less than 700 yards. Teams knew Hyde was the only real threat and despite all that, he had a very good season.
Now that we know a bit more about the back Carlos Hyde, let’s see what Shanahan had at his disposal in the past.
Basically, Shanahan has seen it all. At every stop he coached running backs in every imaginable form and size – small and light like Steve Slaton (HOU) and Isaiah Crowell (CLE); big and heavy like Tim Hightower and Roy Helu (both WSH); even small and heavy like Alfred Morris (WSH), Terrance West (CLE) or most recently Devonta Freeman (ATL).
All these backs have in common, though, that none was picked higher than in the third round and that they all had career years under Shanahan, except Crowell. Shanahan for example even managed to get over 3,000 yards from scrimmage in two seasons from Morris, a rare feat among 6th round running backs. The only other running back picked that late to start his career that way was Terrell Davis ’95 and ’96. Can you guess who his head coach was back then? It was Mike Shanahan, father to our new head coach and Morris’ former OC Kyle Shanahan.
My point is this – Kyle may be known as a quarterback whisperer, but he gets the most out of all his players on offense. Give him any running back and he’ll make him look good. Give him a capable running back and he’ll create a monster.
With all that in mind, back to the rumors about the 49ers selecting a running back early in the draft. The two most intriguing prospects this year are Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey. According to several reports, the 49ers are very interested in the former. Would his selection make sense, though? Not really.
Fournette is a big and heavy back like Hyde. Both are 6-0, Fournette weighs 240 lbs compared to Hyde’s 230 lbs. There is not much difference in playing style as well. Both run angry and fight for every inch on the gridiron. Fournette might have a bit more of that extra gear in the open field, however, Hyde is probably a bit smoother in the passing game. Picking Fournette would only make sense, if the new management really wanted to move on from Hyde. I doubt that they are willing to do that, though. Just today Lynch said they were excited by what Hyde has to offer.
If not Fournette, then what about McCaffrey?
McCaffrey is basically every 49ers fan’s dream prospect. He is just mesmerizing to watch und would offer the perfect complement to a back like Hyde. He set many records at Stanford, most notably the FBS season record for all-purpose yards with a whopping 3,864 yards. Just imagining what a two-headed monster consisting of Hyde and McCaffrey could do under Shanahan makes every 49ers fan drool. It is just too bad that this will forever stay a dream. Viewed at first as a 2nd round prospect, McCaffrey’s draft stock rose immensely in the past month as he impressed everyone at the NFL Combine with both his workouts and interviews. He will be long gone when the 49ers pick for the second time at 34 overall (I’m excluding any trades here because there are simply too many possible scenarios).
Factoring in all of the above, I do not think that the 49ers should move on from Hyde and take a running back early in this draft. He is just too good to give up on and Shanahan’s track record suggests that we can expect big things this year. This does not mean the 49ers should not take a running back; after all, the backups to Hyde are Mike Davis, who is averaging 2.0 YPC over his first two NFL seasons, and journeymen Dujuan Harris and Tim Hightower. Good running backs can always be found later in the draft. It doesn’t always have to be an Ezekiel Elliot in the first round, a Jordan Howard in the fifth sometimes does the trick too.
I believe most of this chatter is simply out there to generate interest in the 2nd overall pick. The 49ers want to trade down badly to accumulate more draft picks in this loaded draft. Even after adding 20 players to the roster through free agency and trade, there is still room for improvement at basically every position. More draft picks in a very deep draft could be a good start to bringing this franchise back to the top.