Run-heavy 49ers got a needed ground game refresh this offseason

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — At various points ahead of the NFL draft, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan found himself on the bad side of long-time running backs coach Bobby Turner.

With Shanahan diving deep into his study of the draft’s top quarterback prospects, there wasn’t as much time to spend with Turner.

“Bobby has been sensitive lately because I haven’t talked to him as much, he claims, in the last month because I’ve been up in the draft room and he comes up for the running backs and stuff,” Shanahan said, laughing, after the draft. “So, we got one long day together and he keeps telling me how I’ve changed because I don’t come down to his office much in the last month.”

Although it wasn’t necessarily meant as an olive branch for Turner, Shanahan more than made it up to him with how the NFL draft played out. San Francisco spent third and sixth-round picks on running backs Trey Sermon and Elijah Mitchell and used second and fifth-round selections on guards Aaron Banks and Jaylon Moore.

Even Trey Lance, the quarterback the 49ers drafted with the third overall pick brings a running ability the team hasn’t had under center since Shanahan arrived in 2017.

The 49ers — a team that emphasizes a dynamic run game with multiple personnel options — needed it. Last year’s 15th place finish in rushing yards and 16th place finish in yards per carry wasn’t nearly good enough. Those numbers dropped from second and ninth, respectively, in 2019. Not coincidentally, the 49ers’ record took a similar tumble from 13-3 in 2019 to 6-10 in 2020.

A flurry of injuries resulted in the Niners finishing the season with four halfbacks starting games and a fifth tallying 39 carries behind an offensive line that had nine players start at least three games.

“The way that we run the offense, I always want to be in a situation where you have to be 50-50 [run-pass],” Shanahan said. “It takes the pressure off of everybody, especially the quarterback and the O-line. So, you try to put a team together that you can always never feel like you have to be one dimensional. I know a lot of the guys that we added into this draft will really help that.”

Although the 49ers signed veteran back Wayne Gallman on April 21, they entered the draft with none of their three most experienced backs under contract beyond the 2021 season. Their the top two backs — Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. — missed a combined 12 games with injury last year.

Which is why Turner, who is well-known in draft circles for his meticulous study of backs and commitment to regularly speaking with prospects he likes, was on the phone with a Day 2 prospect like Sermon often.

“I talked with coach Turner a lot, actually,” Sermon said. “Throughout my process, he’s probably the coach that I talked to the most. So, over time I was able to just get real familiar with him and just build a great relationship.”

That relationship has already taken on more meaning than expected. Wilson suffered a torn meniscus in his knee while standing up at his locker during the offseason program, an injury that is expected to cost him 4-6 months. Mostert also dealt with knee issues that limited his work in organized team activities. Those absences quickly translated into an expanded role for Sermon, who impressed during OTAs, particularly as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.

“Trey’s been great,” Shanahan said. “Each week he’s gotten more and more reps and as we cooled it down with Raheem a little bit here, the last couple of weeks, it’s given him even more opportunities.”

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Mitchell, who says he likes to pattern his game after the Saints’ Alvin Kamara, has also looked like an easy fit in the offense and, like Sermon, is comfortable in the pass game, which could help him carve out a role sooner than later.

And, if all of that isn’t enough to help recharge the running game, the Niners might have the ultimate X-factor in Lance. After rushing for 1,100 yards in his lone full season of college football, Lance brings a new element for Shanahan and offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel to implement.

Lance compiled 485 rushing yards on zone-read plays that season, which would have led all FBS quarterbacks had the Bison played at that level, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Having a quarterback with running ability gives Shanahan a chance to create matchups that can stress defenses in new ways after San Francisco quarterbacks ranked 29th in rushing yards (360) and yards per carry (2.18) since Shanahan took over in 2017.

Even if Lance is unable to unseat Jimmy Garoppolo as the starter, it’s reasonable to think Shanahan and McDaniel can find ways to use that skill in the meantime.

“When you’ve got a guy who has got the skill set as far as speed and size to where you’re not going to make him a runner, but you can get in certain formations where the defense knows you will run him if they don’t honor him, now everything is different,” Shanahan said. “And if you can ever get a guy like that and make 11-on-11 football then I think you have got a guy who can change some things for you.”