Separating scheme from talent
The 49ers‘ rushing attack in 2021 left a lot to be desired. The team missed Raheem Mostert’s explosiveness and big-play ability. The offense finished below average in rushing EPA per play and had a rushing success rate of 42.7% on the season, which was a hair better than the Jaguars.
Deebo Samuel averaged over six yards per carry, bailed the offense out time and time again, and the running game was still sub-par. The 49ers drafted Ty Davis-Price to ensure Samuel doesn’t have to literally carry the load in 2022.
The addition of Davis-Price means the team won’t have to go into a game next season with a running back Kyle Shanahan doesn’t trust. That bit the offense last year. The way teams played the Niners, but clogging the middle of the field, didn’t help the running game, either.
The hope is Trey Lance makes everyone around him better and opens up the field with his arm, which, in turn, makes rushing lanes bigger than ever for the running backs with his mobility.
Pro Football Focus ranked each team’s running backs in the NFL, and the 49ers ranked 27th. Fullbacks were not included in this exercise:
Similar to teams with a rushing threat at quarterback or an elite offensive line, it’s difficult to separate rushing production in Kyle Shanahan’s scheme from the rushing talent. A number of unheralded backs have put up strong numbers under Shanahan, which includes sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell in 2021. Mitchell has plenty of speed (4.38-second 40-yard dash), which plays in a 49ers’ rushing attack that hunts for big plays on the perimeter.
I don’t blame PFF for struggling to separate scheme from talent. Despite relative success as a rookie, I have questions about whether or not Mitchell is the future at running back for this offense. Durability concerns popped up in Year 1, and the 49ers addressed those by drafting TDP.
Sermon producing next to nothing and Wilson looking like a shell of himself doesn’t help this ranking, which brings us to Davis-Price. Patience, vision, acceleration, and speed are the primary traits that lead to production for running backs in this offense. No matter where Davis-Price was ranked, he possesses each of those traits.
What will it take for Davis-Price, Mitchell, or Sermon to impress? Will it take a standalone 100-yard performance that includes “wow” runs with multiple broken tackles? Or is it as simple as consistency?
My guess is that we won’t know who the lead runner is until at least a quarter of the way through the season. That’s not a bad thing, either. My money is on Davis-Price and his physicality stealing the spotlight come season’s end.