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Entering September, the San Francisco 49ers backfield was a source of great fantasy expectations. As we close out the month, it's a source of utter confusion.
Raheem Mostert is done and in the span of the Eagles' game the rest of the depth chart landed in the training room within the same quarter:
- JaMycal Hasty suffered a high ankle sprain and will miss at least a few weeks.
- Elijah Mitchel injured his shoulder and while he returned to the game due to Hasty and Sermon's injury, he's iffy for Week 3.
- Sermon got ping-ponged into a guillotine and nearly got decapitated. As crazy as it sounds, he's fortunate to have only suffered a concussion.
"Now what?" is the appropriate question heading into Week 3. As of Wednesday afternoon, Here's what we know:
- Mitchell and Sermon still have a chance to play on Sunday.
- Kyle Shanahan told the media on September 15 that Jeff Wilson, Jr. is projected to return midseason.
- The 49ers signed Jacques Patrick from the Bengals' practice squad despite having Kerryon Johnson on their own taxi unit.
- The team worked out Lamar Miller, T.J. Yeldon, and Duke Johnson Jr.
- The team signed Chris Thompson to the practice squad.
What are the short-term and long-term expectations that fantasy GMs should have from the 49ers' backfield for the 2021 season? Let's dive into this messy situation.
Miller, Yeldon, and (Duke) Johnson: The Veteran Workouts
Consider the workouts as a preemptive measure for the 49ers in case there's another injury or Sermon fails to progress rapidly through the early milestone markers of the head injury protocol and the team fears he'll miss multiple weeks. Working these players out now gives them an understanding of who could be the best fit based on whatever scenario the team encounters during the next 3-4 weeks. It also puts these free agents on notice that they could get signed any day and they need to continue training.
Of the three, Johnson and Yeldon are the best fit for the role Hasty occupied as the change-of-pace scatback. Johnson's advantage over Yeldon is his experience with Shanahan in Cleveland and more importantly, his skill as a return specialist. The 49ers valued Hasty for his work on special teams. Although Hasty didn't return punts, he was part of kick returns and they can also move another player to coverage duty and use Johnson as a returner.
The downside to Johnson is that he has a reputation for getting hurt during the game and not returning for the contest but not appearing on next week's injury report. This has happened enough that it's difficult to imagine that Shanahan would want a player who has to feel 100 percent healthy to participate in games. This behavior doesn't mesh well with most NFL teams and it's why Johnson has bounced around lately.
There's also the fact that Hasty saw red zone touches in his role. Although Mitchell had the lead role for the past two weeks, he's a momentum-based power back who needs a longer runway to be at his best. This is why he earns a lot of gap plays like toss and power. He's competent at outside zone plays but the line opens big enough creases that he's not forced to be creative behind the line of scrimmage to earn space.
Gap plays are difficult to execute in the red zone because they are slower-developing plays for the offensive line and easier for NFL defenses to disrupt. Zone plays require more development from the running back but the line creates creases faster. This scheme favored Hasty's footwork, vision, and short-area quickness and it's why he was used inside the 10.
If excluding special teams from the equation, Yeldon is a better fit than Johnson. He's an excellent outlet receiver, he's a solid pass protector, and he can run between the tackles. He disappointed the Jaguars as an early-round draft pick in Jacksonville due to an immature approach to his work. However, he matured late in his career and had a workmanlike role with some success in Buffalo as a reserve.
Yeldon is the free-agent option who fulfills the most potential needs of the offense although his ceiling of talent isn't great, neither is Wilson's. In fact, Yeldon and Wilson are similar players in skillsets. Yeldon is bigger and stronger. Wilson knows the playbook.
Miller is the upside option and probably the most expensive veteran of the three. He's a terrific outside zone player who also has experience with gap plays., As a starter in Miami and Houston, Miller is two years removed from an ACL tear and had time in New England's and Washington's training camps.
Fans often looked at a veteran like Miller on those summer rosters and only see his presence from the perspective of "he's trying to prove he's still good enough to make a team." This is a limited point of view of the business of football.
When considering finances and personnel management, Miller's veteran status makes him more expensive than younger backs, which means that if a team believes it has a chance to have a younger back in a reserve or contributing role for 3-4 years, it's a cheaper option with more long-term benefits than having a vet get paid a lot more to sit on the bench. However, having Miller in a training camp gives the team a reliable veteran who can deliver as a starter if the need arises that summer and he gets to learn the playbook. If the depth chart stays healthy, the team can cut the veteran prior to the season and save money. This is similar to what the Saints did with Latavius Murray.
This is why I believe Miller is still the most talented of the three options. If you were to make a preemptive addition in a deep league (40-man rosters) because you have the luxury to do so for a week or two, Miller would be my choice because he has that "fantasy lottery ticket," 1,000-yard upside.
However, 99 percent of you don't have the luxury or roster size to make this move and there are multiple factors that will work against Miller getting signed:
- Sermon's head injury will have to be a long-term problem.
- Mitchell will have to exacerbate his shoulder injury or suffer a worse injury.
- Or, in addition to one of the two potential scenarios above, Wilson's timeline takes a turn for the worse.
I'm covering all the bases here. For now, these veterans aren't players you should consider for your teams unless there's an unexpected turn for the worse for Mitchell and Sermon. Neither appears to have suffered a long-term injury, so I'm giving you the advanced scouting on these players the 49ers worked out so you can act quickly if additional injuries occur.
The Chris Thompson Signing
Thompson has a shot to replace JaMycal Hasty this season if Hasty cannot return to form within 4-6 weeks. Since high ankle sprains are difficult injuries, the addition of Thompson on the practice squad gives the team time to let the veteran learn the system and determine how Hasty is progressing.
Thompson has excellent skills as a scatback, but he has rarely lasted a season due to injuries. His vision is good enough to do work between the tackles and he's an elite outlet option from the backfield when healthy.
Think of Thompson in a similar vein as the Devonta Freeman signing in Baltimore. There's a good chance, he'll be elevated to replace Trenton Cannon on the active roster within 1-3 weeks, but his usage will likely be small enough that adding him to a roster will clog up your roster space with a terrific football player who has a small role and infrequent fantasy value.
What about (Kerryon) Johnson and Trent Cannon?
Kerryon is a perfect practice squad player but far from an ideal gameday contributor. Once an incredible talent, who appeared poised to become a starter who could compete with Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey for the title of most versatile NFL workhorse, Kerryon's injuries caught up with him. He no longer has the knees to play at the level he did at Auburn or early in his Lions' career.
He's a skilled pass receiver, who can still deliver as an outlet player and give a team 3-5 touches as a runner with plays like draws, shovel passes, screens, and wide routes. However, counting on him to deliver as a substantive contributor beyond Hasty's small role from the first two weeks is unrealistic.
The 49ers probably see Johnson as a smart veteran who can execute on the practice squad and help the team behind the scenes. If they call up Johnson, it will be for a specific role they deem important that's small but vital.
Cannon has special teams value, he can catch the ball, and he has enough burst to earn yardage on gap plays and outside-zone plays, but he's a smaller back and an average decision-maker between the tackles, at best. He might earn some of Hasty's opportunities for a week or two, at best — maybe even a slightly larger workload if Mitchell and/or Sermon are unavailable this week. Otherwise, fantasy GMs are banking on the luck of a defensive assignment breakdown on a play that opens the field for Cannon to score an unexpected touchdown.
He's not worth targeting.
The Curious case of Jacques Patrick
Signed off the Bengals' practice squad this week, Patrick has the size and strength to earn a high volume of touches. He was one of my underrated options in the 2019 Rookie Scouting Portfolio.
When I initially began research on Patrick, it appeared that his best fit for an NFL offense would be limited to gap blocking schemes. I saw his assets in a similar vein as Leonard Fournette and Karlos Williams — big, downhill thumpers who thrive behind a fullback when working towards one primary crease and use economical footwork, variations of stride length, and pacing variation to set up the hole.
Clearly, Patrick can fulfill this part of the 49ers' ground game. However, as another year passed at Florida State and Patrick split time with Cam Akers behind a limited offensive line and an offense that transitioned from an old-school ground game to a shotgun-based attack, Patrick revealed a different dimension to his game that most scouts likely overlooked if they didn't spend a lot of time on his senior-year tape.
My fellow NFL Draft Fiends (and you are fiendish), if there was ever a theme for this running back class it's "Not how fast you run but how fast you can stop."— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) March 10, 2019
FSU Jacques Patrick is one of many who does this well. Excellent feet for the 6'1", 231-lb. RB.
Patrick has enough versatility as a blocker, receiver, and, in the run game, to earn touches in the 49ers' lineup if called upon. You can read a sample of his pre-draft scouting report at my site.
Since we can only take this situation week-to-week until we gain a clearer prognosis for Mitchell and Sermon, this week currently looks like the best week for Patrick to earn meaningful playing time. If one of Mitchell or Sermon is available this weekend, expect them to earn the majority of touches. If both are available, Patrick might only see 2-3 snaps this weekend unless Mitchell or Sermon perform poorly.
If neither can go, Patrick could earn the start or a significant amount of touches while paired with Cannon. When speaking solely on the basis of talent, Patrick is the choice if he shows that he's assignment-sound with the playbook. He's the best bet in the red zone, he can run from shotgun alignments, and he can touch the ball multiple times and hold up.
Think of Patrick as a preemptive addition for a shallow roster that is in dire need of a runner this week or a luxury add to a deep roster with the idea of him being a hedge to something worse happening to Mitchell and/or Sermon. Even so, Patrick will need to perform well in this emergency capacity for him to hold off Lamar Miller or T.J. Yeldon, who would likely get signed if the long-term outlook for both Mitchell and Sermon is pessimistic.
I think Patrick is up to the challenge. He impressed numerous beat writers while in Cincinnati's training camp for the past two years, but the Bengals prefer athletes with top-end speed: Joe Mixon and Chris Evans are two examples on the positive end of that preference whereas Pooka Williams was a good example of there they erred. Considering that Cincinnati added Patrick when Zach Taylor arrived and installed an outside zone scheme, the 49ers felt confident that Patrick has a potential fit with what they do.
Considering that this move was the option ahead of signing one of the veterans the team worked out, Patrick is seen as an emergency option short-term with a little more long-term value at a cheaper price tag.
The Long game of Mitchell and Sermon: Or, is it Sermon and Mitchell?
While many of you may feel like the above information was me burying the lede, I opted to address the short-term scenarios and answer the abundance of "what about" questions that usually accompany any analysis of the main players. Mitchell and Sermon are those main players and I would say long-term, it's still Sermon and Mitchell in that order.
Mitchell saw the field first because Sermon doesn't play special teams and the 49ers made Sermon inactive. Mitchell was the back available to benefit from Mostert's latest bout of misfortune. Mitchell played well enough to earn the lead role in Week 2, but as shown in Week 1's Top 10, Mitchell's calling card is his long speed that matches well with specific play types.
He's not a refined runner. That said, scouting players can deteriorate into a beauty pageant. If you're in a pageant, it's usually because you possess a baseline of beauty and skills that earned you that spot. Don't get too technical with me about pageants, I don't watch them, I'm just operating from an extremely casual understanding of them.
Sometimes, in the effort to classify players, one can give more weight to the most refined prospect despite another prospect having enough skills to do the job and possessing one specific skill that's superior. Mitchell doesn't run zone plays as well as Sermon. He's not as powerful as Sermon without a long runway to build up speed. He's also far less efficient with his footwork to set up creases and make hard cuts downhill.
When a team forces Mitchell to do the things that Sermon does better, you begin to see the loose threads of Mitchell's game.
However, Mitchell has a lot more long speed than Sermon and in this 49ers offense that can provide big runways, he's an asset — at least as a player who can offer a big-play component as a perimeter runner or like Cordarrelle Patterson, a functional big-play threat when he can get downhill early and accelerate.
The big problem with Mitchell is that Toss isn't the only play an offense can run and have a successful day on the ground.
Unless the defense has significant injuries to personnel and is playing without NFL-caliber talent, opposing defenses will cheat to contain the play and force the 49ers to do something else. So, while Mitchell is a nice story and still has the potential to develop his game during the next 2-3 seasons, he's essentially Tevin Coleman Lite at this point of his career. In fact, Hasty had the biggest play on Toss in the Eagles game, followed by Sermon's ill-fated run.
Sermon remains the best hope for the 49ers' ground game this year and in the future, either paired with Mitchell as a 1-2 punch, or as the clear lead back. The reactionary component of our fantasy hobby fears the idea of standing firm on this idea. Much of this is based on half-truths developed from overlooked details.
There's the myth that Shanahan is a mysterious and unpredictable decision-maker who is always using different running backs. The only reason the 49ers have gone from Jerick McKinnon to Tevin Coleman to Matt Breida to Raheem Mostert to Jeff Wilson and down the line is injury. And I'd argue that Coleman was always going to be a change-of-pace complement in this offense.
When Breida, Mostert, or Wilson were the main backs, they were the backs who earned the majority of the touches until suffering an injury. Shanahan reiterated to the media last week when discussing Mostert's and Wilson's prognoses that the 49ers have had to lean on multiple backs over the years but that was not by their design. Whether you believe my interpretation of Shanahan's words or the literal words he spoke, the touches you can research support what I'm telling you.
The other part of the Sermon story that concerns the general public is his inactive status and the idea that it was a disciplinary move. This gets some legs because of the reports of Sermon's practice efforts heading into Week 2. He had his strongest week of practice since being with the team.
"There was a deliberate intent and an extra focus to him, an extra aggressiveness that I think his teammates felt," Offensive Coordinator Mike McDaniel told the 49ers WebZone. "So, what that told me is, 'Hey, I didn't like not dressing. I want to play football. So how do I do that? I don't go and talk to people. I show people. That's kind of the common denominator. Kyle always says to players and coaches, 'Don't tell me, show me' And he showed, I think all of us, that he really wants an opportunity, which he'll get this Sunday."
Although it was only one carry down the stretch and due to injury, Sermon was in a position to close out this game. Adding to the fact that Shanahan validated McDaniel's comments about Sermon as "accurate," Sermon remains in a position to earn a significant role in the backfield, if not take the job outright despite the odd and difficult start to the season.
While few coaches will publicly share that a player is in the doghouse and the team could have been testing Sermon with its Week 1 decision, the most likely truth is what we saw happen and should take at face value. Mostert was healthy, Hasty was the most experienced depth with and special teams role, and Mitchell had a special teams role. The 49ers saw no need to carry four running backs into the game, especially as a team that uses multiple tight ends and a fullback.
The fringe benefit of benching Sermon might have been seeing how he responded, but I doubt it was the primary intention. Sermon was the No.2 back by most beat writer accounts since OTAs in May. Perhaps the added intensity of his practices last week was notable but there's a significant range of practice behaviors that are acceptable, as long as they meet the team's baseline or effort and intensity.
Some players are high-intensity throughout practice while others increase or decrease the intensity based on the moment at hand. There are exceptional cases of great players with poor practice habits, but it's doubtful we wouldn't have heard about this with Sermon if this were the case.
What about Wilson?
Wilson is a proven commodity who can find the open crease and get what the offensive line blocked for him. He's a skilled outlet receiver and capable pass protector. Keep in mind that Wilson was healthy when the 49ers drafted Sermon and Mitchell. The experience favors Wilson, but that's about it.
In this respect, he's capable of usurping the role of an underperforming contributor when he's healthy. Expect him to return no earlier than Week 5 or 6.
What about Hasty?
High ankle sprains are tricky. Although I'm a big fan of his talent if Sermon can earn the role as the lead back and Wilson returns around the same time Hasty is healthy, look for Wilson to usurp Hasty's touches as a change-of-pace option. Hasty earned limited snaps when healthy and needed and while they gave him PPR and red-zone potential on a small scale, they were still small-scale opportunities.
He remains an intriguing dynasty option for deep leagues where monitoring a talented player without a great role is still an important facet of managing teams.
- Deep roster (30-40+) with a luxury addition as a hedge: Jacques Patrick short-term with a slight shot at a season-long role. Lamar Miller as a total lottery ticket gamble on multiple injuries.
- Short-term emergency addition if there's a downturn for Sermon and/or Mitchell this week: Patrick.
- This season's best long-term bet (the next 10-15 weeks) to lead the backfield: Sermon.
- This season's best short-term bet (3-4 weeks) make a consistent contribution: Mitchell
- The best hedge against these recommendations long-term: Wilson.