The 49ers’ turmoil under center has overshadowed a very good roster the last couple of seasons. They’ve quietly improved their secondary and receiving corps, while revamping their running back room and adding to their already strong defensive line and linebacker corps.
A quick look at their roster would identify the front seven, the D-line and linebackers, as perhaps their strongest position group. The folks at Football Outsiders would disagree. They listed the 49ers’ RBs as their top position group, and it’s kind of difficult to discern how.
Here’s what Football Outsiders wrote on the RBs:
Although Deebo Samuel won’t be taking handoffs as often this fall, the 49ers still have their top four true running backs from last season — young guys Elijah Mitchell and Trey Sermon, plus veterans Jeff Wilson and JaMycal Hasty.
They also drafted Tyrion Davis-Price out of LSU in the third round of the draft in April. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk, an excellent run-blocker, is also a dangerous receiver out of the backfield.
Samuel’s name comes up before any RB does following his excellence working in at the position last year. He did that in part because head coach Kyle Shanahan didn’t think there was a better option on the roster.
Mitchell turned into a workhorse back unlike any the 49ers have had during Shanahan’s tenure and Wilson’s playing time dwindled to zero if Mitchell was healthy. Hasty was an unspectacular third-down back, and Sermon couldn’t get any work on offense when he was healthy.
San Francisco selected Davis-Price in Round 3 this year, marking the second year in a row they spent a Day 2 pick on a running back. He’s an unknown that could elevate this group’s overall productivity, but he hasn’t even gotten into camp yet.
Juszczyk is one of the 49ers’ best players so it makes sense that he’d help buoy the RBs rank. However, there’s just not enough certainty or depth to comfortably call it the team’s best position group.
The parameters for their choice involved taking top talent and depth into account. While Mitchell and Juszczyk are very good, the depth behind Mitchell at RB is uncertain at best.
On the defensive line Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead lead the way. Samson Ebukam came on strong to close last season, and the 49ers spent a second-round pick on USC DE Drake Jackson. They also returned 2020 sack leader Kerry Hyder, and signed former Colts DE Kemoko Turay this offseason. Former first-round pick Javon Kinlaw is returning from a knee injury as well.
One level back is a very strong group of linebackers, spearheaded by Fred Warner who might be the best off-ball LB in the NFL. Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair have both proven to be effective three-down LBs, while Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles has acquitted himself well in minimal playing time. The 49ers also added former Packers LB and special teams standout Oren Burks this offseason.
While those two positions might stand out above RB for now, the 49ers would love for their backfield to have the top-end success they had with Mitchell last year while seeing the likes of Davis-Price, Wilson, Sermon and Hasty step into larger, more productive roles.