Written by Timothy Lewis (@TrendsAndTakes) — August 6th, 2019
Given the nature of their small sample size, individual football seasons are an arbitrary unit of measurement. To best assess what a player offers, we should take a macro approach to their career. For this article, I will do so with Tevin Coleman and his backfield competition.
As a college producer, Coleman was both a home run hitter and a workhorse, averaging an outstanding 7.5 YPC on 250 attempts his junior campaign. Additionally, he demonstrated proficiency as a receiver, with an 80th percentile target share. At 5’11”, 210 lbs, the Indiana product looked the part of a three-down back at the NFL level. Unfortunately, an early-season injury his rookie year would give an opportunity to Falcon stablemate, Devonta Freeman, who would run away with the starting job and alter Coleman’s career arc.
However, Coleman maintained productivity in his supplementary role, averaging over 900 yards from scrimmage and scoring at least eight touchdowns the past three seasons. At age 26 and fresh-legged, the presumed starter is also reunited with familiar faces, including run game coordinator Mike McDaniel, passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur, and head coach Kyle Shannahan.
Therefore, what the former Hoosier provides, namely in the red zone, is not lost on this coaching staff. It’s unlikely we see more diminutive backs like Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida disturb Coleman’s work inside the 20s. In fact, for the past two seasons, we have seen Alfred Morris and Carlos Hyde place seventh and first respectively in goal-line carries under Shanahan’s instruction. Morris did so on just 111 carries, compared to 240 for Hyde. Here’s what Mike LaFleur had to say about Coleman’s ability to win in the trenches:
“He can run and he’s explosive, no doubt. The thing that really sticks out with Tevin is how fearless and physical this guy is. He is a man out there. When you tell him to put his foot in the ground and go north and south, he’s going to do it times 10. It’s every single week. It’s every single down. You’re always getting the same guy. … When we need him to get us a yard, he’s going to get us a yard every single time.”
We can look at the above and say “Tevin Coleman will lead this backfield, ok, but is that enough? Could this still be an infuriating timeshare?” I’d argue that’s unlikely. Coleman’s competition is not particularly stiff and the 49ers will use their RBs more than most teams, both as rushers and receiving options.
Jerick McKinnon is a QB-turned-RB with an incredible athletic profile. After four seasons with the Vikings, the 49ers signed him to a lucrative contract in 2018. The inaugural campaign would be cut short by a preseason ACL injury, making 2019 his official debut season with the team. To put it nicely, McKinnon has been uneven throughout his career, repeatedly failing to seize a starting job despite underwhelming backfield competition. In two straight seasons, he has averaged under 4.0 YPC and while he has served as an effective receiver, Coleman has been markedly more efficient. There isn’t an area where Mckinnon wins that Coleman doesn’t win better.
Matt Breida, talented in his own right, is sub-200 lbs and Kyle Shanahan has made it a personal mission to relegate him to obscurity. “How so?” you ask. In Breida’s rookie year, Carlos Hyde received 88 targets in the passing game. He dropped 14 of them. “Ok, maybe the coaching staff didn’t trust the rookie.” In 2018, Breida’s sophomore campaign, the 49ers paid Jerick McKinnon handsomely to assume lead back duties.
As history relays, McKinnon went down with a knee injury, but did that open up the door for Breida? Not if Kyle Shanahan would have anything to say about it, doing everything short of a seance to resurrect the corpse of Alfred Morris, who would go on to start multiple games and absorb all the aforementioned goal-line opportunities. An appropriate player comparison for Breida is Austin Ekeler and there’s nothing wrong with that. But Austin Ekeler needs to be Austin Ekeler, not Melvin Gordon. Perhaps “relegate him to obscurity” is harsh, but Shanahan clearly sees Breida as a change of pace option.
With the emergence of George Kittle and Dante Pettis, along with a healthy Jimmy Goroppolo, game script is inclined to benefit the running game. So even if McKinnon and Breida work their way in, a 15-touch floor is realistic for Coleman. And when we talk about ceiling, he could literally lead the league in goal-line touches while also leading his backfield in carries and receptions. Huge.
So what’s the buzz coming out of camp so far?
Still waiting…Sounds like Austin Ekeler to me
By Timothy Lewis on .
Exported from Medium on March 21, 2020.