SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers have had a different rushing leader every year since coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch arrived in 2017.
And they've gotten significant production from a group largely comprised of unknowns, though former second-round pick Carlos Hyde (2017) was a holdover from the previous regime. In the four seasons that followed Hyde, the Niners leading rusher has been a former undrafted free agent (Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr.) and a sixth-round pick last year in Elijah Mitchell.
If you tied your fantasy team's hopes to a Niners running back based on the previous season's production, you probably came out disappointed. As we head toward season No. 6 for Shanahan and Lynch, that trend may continue.
That's because the Niners, for the second year in a row, invested a third-round pick in a running back, this time LSU's Tyrion Davis-Price. This after the Niners re-signed Wilson and JaMycal Hasty while Mostert departed for the Miami Dolphins in free agency.
The addition of Davis-Price gives the Niners a crowded running backs room that also includes Mitchell, Wilson, Hasty, Trey Sermon and undrafted rookie Jordan Mason. Not all will make the roster, but recent history shows the majority will contribute at some point in 2022.
"There's plenty of room for these guys," Lynch said. "Most seasons we've used four, we've used five. ... We emphasize the run game here and we want versatile backs. I think we have that with our collection of guys, and we're excited about that group.”
While there's no denying injuries have forced the Niners to play musical running backs in recent seasons, it is fair to wonder why they needed to draft another running back with a relatively early pick. That's not a knock on Davis-Price so much as a testament to the Niners' ability to uncover late-round and undrafted gems.
Just last year, the team selected Sermon in the third round and gave him every opportunity in camp to become Mostert's primary backup. Instead, Mitchell emerged as the more reliable option and, after Mostert suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1, Mitchell set a franchise record for most rushing yards by a rookie (963) while adding five rushing touchdowns. He did it in just 11 regular-season games, which speaks to his production but also to an inability to stay on the field.
For Mitchell, this offseason has been all about getting healthy after knee, rib, concussion and shoulder issues, and trying to bulk up to better handle the rigors of the NFL season. Mitchell hopes to play at 215 pounds in 2022, which is about 15 more than he carried last season.
"I definitely want to put some more mass on," Mitchell said.
The 49ers still view Mitchell as their top option in the run game as they open organized team activities this week. But they also envision Davis-Price emerging as a bigger, more powerful complement. Listed at 6-foot, 211 pounds at the NFL scouting combine, Davis-Price ran the 40-yard dash in 4.48 seconds. He played his final season at LSU around 225 pounds and says he plans to be in the 220-222 range in San Francisco.
That would give the Niners a more physical presence at running back, something they lacked in 2021 when none of their backs weighed more than Sermon at 215 pounds.
"I love delivering the blow," Davis-Price said. "I don't like getting tackled. I know it happens but I hate getting tackled. I love bringing the contact to them so that they don't want to tackle you. In the first, second quarter they might take it a little bit, but eventually they don't want any more of it. That is always my mindset, to go and attack the defender and wear them out, make them quit."
That approach could go a long way in helping the Niners in short-yardage situations, where they were perfect in 2021 when close enough for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to execute a sneak but one of the NFL's least successful teams when handing it off.
The 49ers ranked 29th in the league in third-down run conversion percentage, gaining a first down on just 42.4% of their rushing attempts on third down.
On handoffs to running backs, their conversion rate of 42.1% was last in the NFL on fourth or third-and-3 or fewer.
They averaged 2.3 yards per carry on third-and-2 or fewer yards, which ranked 26th in the NFL.
In 2021, Davis-Price had 36 carries for 153 yards and two touchdowns on third or fourth down. From that, he went for 111 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries when the Tigers faced third or fourth down with 3 or fewer yards to go.
While those might feel like deep-in-the-weeds numbers, it's worth considering the Niners' last two postseason losses came in part because of the offense's inability to keep the chains moving in the fourth quarter. Davis-Price should also help lighten the load on star receiver Deebo Samuel, who split time between wideout and running back for the back half of the season after injuries ravaged the running back room.
"The more guys you can add the better, but kind of the physicality that he brings gives you a chance to have a very physical one-two punch," Shanahan said. "I thought Deebo helped us do that towards the end of last year bringing that in, but you don't want that to be just your one- two punch. You got to bring in some other backs to do that. I do think we have some guys on roster that have a chance."