Matt Breida is somehow getting lost in all of the shuffling in the San Francisco 49ers backfield and it makes no sense at all.
It’s easy to get lost in the San Francisco 49ers backfield these days—the money, the commitments, the talent—so we’d be wise to keep the main point very clear from the outset: Matt Breida was the fastest ball carrier clocked in the NFL last year.
Let’s say that again, because it might take a moment for the mind to let it settle. After all, it’s not an automatic name like Tyreek Hill or Saquon Barkley, Tevin Coleman or DeSean Jackson. Matt Breida bested them all in 2018 with a top speed of 22.09 miles per hour.
More than ever, the NFL is a game of mismatches. Bill Belichick is the admiral of this coaching army, an unparalleled genius at maximizing the talent he’s given to great effect and he’s got the Super Bowl rings to show for it. Andy Reid has no equal on the offensive side of the ball, and the same would likely be said of Wade Phillips on the defensive side. Each of these coaches are experts in showing players how to use their particular skill sets—their size, their route-running, their agility, their top-end speed—in very specific ways to create opportunities at key moments.
When a team has a player who can crest the 22 mph mark in a full football uniform—pads and all—they have the ultimate mismatch, a queen on a green chess board used to force their opponent into shaking his head before declaring “checkmate”.
Yet the 49ers—or specifically General Manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan—seem to be ignoring Breida. Instead of preparing space for him on the field, they’re crowding him out. Instead of shining a spotlight on his talents, they’re introducing new faces to reporters. Instead of game planning with this absolute burner out of the backfield, they’re creating more competition for the reps he could receive.
At this point, no one in the NFL has a more loaded backfield than the 49ers. That’s good news because no one is paying as much for their backfield either.
1. Jerick McKinnon (27) – $7.5M annual – 7th in NFL
McKinnon had never rushed for more than 570 yards in four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, but the Niners decided to pay him $30 million over 4 years anyway. He tore his ACL just before the season began and is slated to return in time for training camp.
2. Tevin Coleman (26) – $4.25M annual – 16th in NFL
Coleman is the latest addition, a free agent signing from the Atlanta Falcons who should be very familiar with Shanahan’s offensive system from their time together there. He rushed 167 times for 800 yards (4.8 yards/carry) and 4 touchdowns last year.
3. Raheem Mostert (27) – $2.9M annual – 25th in NFL
Mostert is a feel-good story, a former Purdue football player and track star who has taken significant time to find his footing at the pro level. He’s the only special teams contributor among the lot and Lynch just gave him a three-year extension this spring. He rushed 34 times for 261 yards and 1 touchdown last year.
4. Kyle Juszczyk (28) – $5.25M annual – 1st in NFL (Fullback)
Let’s not forget the Niners backfield also includes the most expensive fullback in the game (Patrick DiMarco of the Buffalo Bills is next at $2.1M/year). Juszczyk is a pass-catching fullback who has caught 63 passes over the last two seasons in San Francisco. A nice weapon, but he was a head-scratcher when he first signed and remains just as much so today.
Some of these signings are hard to justify on paper. Taken together, it’s an accounting nightmare. No team in the NFL has spent more on its backfield than the Niners, and there’s simply no reason to spend at this level. Yes, they’ve been burned by injuries, but there are better ways to fix things.
Depth is good but not if it overcomplicates a picture that should be much clearer. Instead of carving a clear path for a talent like Breida, a player who is the youngest of the lot by far at 24, they’re erasing him from the picture—or at least much of it. Mostert was re-signed, which is a commitment. Coleman is the shiny new addition and an already familiar face to Shanahan. McKinnon was, for reasons unknown, the big ticket free agent just a year ago. The team’s brass has to be anxious to see what its getting for the money when he’s healthy and ready.
How many reps does that really leave for Breida? In 13 starts last year, Breida carried the ball 153 times for 814 rushing yards and three touchdowns. That was good for 5.3 yards per carry (again the best of this bunch). He also caught 27 of 31 targets for an 87 percent catch rate. In short, his hands were glue and he was over halfway to a first down every time he got the ball.
Instead of asking a more informed question as to why Breida averaged less than 13 touches per game in 2018, we’re forced to wonder why he looks like he’ll be receiving even less in 2019. This would be way too much for a team all-in on the running game like the Tennessee Titans or the Baltimore Ravens. It’s ludicrous for a team returning Jimmy Garoppolo under center.
The 49ers backfield not only looks like a complete mess financially with poorly allocated funds being used to cover perceived security concerns, it’s also frustrating to see Breida specifically buried amid the all of this. Most teams would love to get their hands on a kid who can create such mismatches in open space.