By now, NFL fans know that when the San Francisco 49ers gets their ground attack going, they become a blistering, dominant force.
The running game provided a huge assist in the manhandling of two NFC North foes at Levi’s Stadium before Super Bowl 54. Including playoffs this past season, the 49ers went 12-3 in games that saw them hit 100 rushing yards or more per Pro Football Reference. Handoffs and trench poundings has become a primary staple of Kyle Shanahan-led offenses.
This means the 49ers have a top 10 backfield unit heading into the 2022 season, right?
Unfortunately, the ‘Niners backfield unit got ranked near the bottom of one national ranking released on Wednesday, June 8.
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Where the 49ers Fell
Conducted by Ben Linsey of Pro Football Focus, PFF dove into the league’s best running back units for the upcoming season.
There was one area of the backfield that was excluded.
“For the purposes of this exercise, fullbacks weren’t included. Teams with quality options at fullback, such as the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens, would receive slight bumps if they were taken into account,” Linsey wrote.
With that said by PFF, here’s where the 49ers’ backfield unit were ranked: No. 27 overall.
Why that ranking? Especially with divisional rivals the Seattle Seahawks ranked at No. 13 and the usually pass-happy Arizona Cardinals rated higher at No. 23? Linsey explained:
“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.
“Mitchell will be backed up by Jeff Wilson, Trey Sermon and 2022 draft selection Tyrion Davis-Price — a third-round pick who ranked 172nd on PFF’s big board.”
Yes, whoever has lined up in Shanahan’s outside zone attack has put together strong numbers — regardless if it was Mitchell, Raheem Mostert, or even Deebo Samuel. But a No. 27 ranking is quite telling for a team that has thrived and been successful outside of the aerial game.
And the best backfield per PFF? The Cleveland Browns with Nick Chubb at the forefront followed by Kareem Hunt. The Browns were followed by Indianapolis at No. 2, Green Bay at No. 3 and Minnesota at No. 4.
What the 49ers Unit Now Looks Like
While it wasn’t mentioned by Linsey, injuries could’ve likely been another reason behind the 27th rating by PFF.
After all, Mostert was lost for most of the year with an ACL tear. Wilson dealt with a meniscus tear that took him away for eight games. The rookie Sermon battled an ankle injury. The unit was so decimated that Shanahan and the 49ers had to bring up Brian Hill from the practice squad and, of course, slide Samuel over to the backfield.
Mitchell emerged as the surprise lead bell cow back in a injury ravaged unit. But despite his ascension from sixth rounder to starter, there’s no guarantee he’ll be the starter.
The 49ers took a liking to the “zip” and power that Tyrion Davis-Price showed in an LSU uniform, prompting them to draft him in day two at No. 93 overall. There’s the belief Davis-Price will help change the 49ers’ fortunes in short yardage situations like this one:
Sermon and Wilson are also healthier. With Davis-Price drafted, Samuel may settle for a lesser backfield role — which had been a widely topic of discussion during his offseason contract chatter. Lance has also shown a past life of taking handoffs and gashing defenses with his legs while operating the RPO (run pass option) offense at North Dakota State.
While the 27th ranking is quite telling, the 49ers have the pieces in place to catapult themselves higher. Health, then production can get them there, as it has in the past.