49ers seek proper 'pecking order' in crowded running back battle

Tevin Coleman's 18 career regular season rushing touchdowns is still more than the 13 combined among Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert and Jerick McKinnon. Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Upon entering the league as an undrafted rookie in 2017, San Francisco 49ers running back Matt Breida got a crash course in what is expected of the position in coach Kyle Shanahan's offense.

As part of the learning process, Niners running backs coach Bobby Turner provided plenty of film of Shanahan's previous offenses for Breida to watch. The stars of that tape were the 2016 Atlanta Falcons, one of the most explosive offenses in league history, and a unit that boasted the dynamic running back duo of Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman.

Breida paid close attention to how Shanahan deployed Coleman and Freeman, using them all over the formation and noting Coleman's knack for ripping off the big play as a runner or a pass-catcher.

Just a few years later, Breida can see Coleman up close after the 49ers signed him to a two-year deal worth up to $8.5 million in the offseason. In the process, the Niners added another proven piece to a running back room already teeming with talent and potential.

In this training camp, there doesn't seem to be much of a battle for roster spots so much as a contest for how the depth chart will shake out amongst a group that includes Coleman, Breida, Jerick McKinnon and Raheem Mostert. It's something both 49ers fans and the fantasy football community are watching closely.

"It's more of [determining] a pecking order," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "Just let it play out. I think we’ve got a pretty good feel for all the guys. We kind of have an idea what they can do ... we just want those guys repping. Right now, we don't really care what the play is. I don’t even know who's in, Bobby just rolls them in every play. We want them to compete and hopefully it sorts itself out. If it doesn’t, they’re going to make me have to make a very tough decision.”

If statements like that from a coach named Shanahan is enough to bring about a case of post-traumatic fantasy running back stress disorder, well, that's understandable. Late in his tenure as the Denver Broncos coach and again with the Washington Redskins, Mike Shanahan -- Kyle's father -- made a habit of driving fantasy owners crazy with his constant game of musical running backs.

With the Redskins in 2011, Shanahan had four running backs -- Ryan Torain, Evan Royster, Roy Helu and Tim Hightower -- finish a game with 96 or more rushing yards. He had done something similar in Denver in 2007 when three backs, in this case Selvin Young, Travis Henry and Andre Hall, each had at least two games rushing for 89 or more yards. Same for 2008 when Peyton Hillis, Michael Pittman, Tatum Bell and Young each had a game rushing for at least 78 yards.

Could something similar play out for the 49ers this year? It's still early in the preseason but it can't be ruled out.

As it stands right now, Coleman appears to be first in line. While Breida and Mostert are also getting opportunities, Coleman has consistently been the primary back with the top offense. That should be no surprise given his familiarity with Shanahan's offense and ability to fit in right away.

What's more, Coleman also brings something valuable that the Niners desperately need more of from their running backs in 2019: the ability to score touchdowns.

"I think he does an incredible job of running the wide zone which includes pressing his blocks, you always hear about that one cut kind of runner, and I think he’s really good at that," fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "The other thing is the guy finishes in the end zone. That was one thing I couldn’t help but notice when we were watching Atlanta tape. The guy kept finishing in the end zone and I feel like that’s something that we missed and I think having that is really going to add to our offense."

Indeed, the 49ers finished tied for last in the NFL last year in rushing touchdowns with seven. Those struggles were amplified in the red zone, where the Niners were last in efficiency, scoring touchdowns on just 41.2 percent of their trips inside the opponent's 20 and 31st in goal to go efficiency, reaching the end zone on 57.7 percent of their trips inside the opponent's 10.

Many of those problems stemmed from San Francisco's struggles to run in tight quarters, averaging 2.15 yards per carry in the red zone, which was 30th in the NFL.

While Coleman hasn't exactly been a touchdown machine, his 18 career regular-season rushing touchdowns is still more than the 13 combined among Breida, Mostert and McKinnon. Coleman hit pay dirt on the ground eight times in 2016. Of those 18 scores, Coleman has scored 13 on runs inside the red zone and has averaged 2.7 yards per carry inside the 20.

That history should be enough to ensure that Coleman is the first 49ers back that most fantasy owners should target heading into the season. It also doesn't mean the others won't contribute in their own ways.

"Our running back room is not selfish," Breida said. "We don't care about how many carries we get, how many touchdowns we get, we just want to win. So whoever is out there, whoever is doing a great job, we're going to be happy for and I feel like that's our whole team's mindset is that we're not worried about 'Oh, let's get these stats or I didn't get enough carries this game.' We just want to win."

In some ways, all four of the Niners' top backs offer similar traits. All bring top-end speed, knowledge of Shanahan's offense and the ability to excel in the outside zone heavy concepts the 49ers prefer.

But there are also enough differences that even if Coleman gets the first opportunity, there are ways for Shanahan to deploy the rest, even if it means doing something he's never done before: keeping four running backs active on game days.

McKinnon looked poised to play a big role in the passing game in 2018, something he should be in line to do again once he returns from the torn ACL that cost him last season. Breida proved a dynamic outside runner with big play ability but battled an ankle issue that prevented him from carrying the load for most of the season. Mostert is the team's best special-teams player and an underrated runner who doesn't shy away from contact.

It's not hard to envision Shanahan using all four backs in different ways or even in tandem with Breida specializing as an outside runner, McKinnon as a receiver and Coleman as something of a combination of the two.

"I like it," Shanahan said. "You can never have too much [depth] ... we have four to start with that are starting-caliber guys and we used four last year. So, the fact that we have four on our roster now is a very good thing to have."