Is Carlos Hyde the Right Back for Kyle Shanahan?

The San Francisco 49ers' running back had a career-best season in 2016, but the new coaching staff reportedly isn't sold on him as the starter.

Nearing the end of the quiet period in the NFL offseason, rumors of Carlos Hyde being a possible surprise cut by the San Francisco 49ers sent shockwaves around Twitter and NFL circles last week.

The report came after the 49ers spent a fourth round pick on running back Joe Williams out of Utah in this year's draft, traded for Kapri Bibbs, and signed signed free agents Matt Breida and Tim Hightower.

Hyde is coming off a big year, during which he set career highs in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. He was one of few bright spots for the 49ers, who won just two games all season. Per our numbers, Hyde vastly outperformed his teammates in 2016.

But first year head coach Kyle Shanahan knows a thing or two about running backs -- he coached Devonta Freeman to consecutive top-10 rushing seasons during his tenure as the Atlanta Falcons' offensive coordinator. So maybe there was good reason for Hyde's job to be in jeopardy.

With that in mind, it's fair to ask if Hyde is good enough to keep the starting role in San Francisco -- and perhaps more importantly, does he fit in Shanahan's offense?

Catching the Role

In seven of Shanahan's nine seasons as an offensive coordinator, at least one of his running backs finished with 40 or more targets.

During each of the past two seasons, while Shanahan was leading the Atlanta Falcons' offense, Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for over 100 targets. After seeing just 11 targets compared to Freeman's 97 in 2015, Coleman was targeted 40 times last season, and, among all running backs with 25 or more targets, ranked first with 0.78 Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target. (You can read more about NEP in our glossary)

Meanwhile, Hyde was targeted 33 times in 2016, more than doubling his previous career high. Unfortunately, he was fairly inefficient with that opportunity, as his 0.09 Reception NEP per target ranked 51st among running backs with 25 or more targets (the average at the position in 2016 was 0.34).

There has been speculation that Williams or Breida could play the role of the pass-catching back in San Fran, but the pair combined for just 42 receptions in their combined five years of college ball. Hightower has caught at least 21 passes in each of the four NFL seasons which he's played in all 16 games, and he ranked sixth in the league last season with 0.50 Reception NEP per target among backs with at least 20 looks.

Of course, the most important part of playing running back is, well, running. And that isn't made easy behind San Francisco's offensive line.

Blocking the Path to Success

According to Pro Football Focus, the 49ers' offensive line has ranked 26th and 27th, respectively, over the past two seasons. In 2016, only two of San Francisco's starters even ranked inside the top 50 players at their position in terms of run blocking.

Player Position Run Block Grade Position Rank
Joe Staley LT 85.2 7th
Zane Beadles LG 43 59th
Daniel Kilgore C 77.7 12th
Josh Garnett RG 41.3 65th
Trent Brown RT 40.2 71st

Despite that lack of success, San Francisco did not address the offensive line in the draft. And the only offensive lineman they acquired via trade is Jeremy Zuttah, who does present a significant upgrade in pass blocking over Daniel Kilgore, per Pro Football Focus, but actually ranked nine spots lower in the run blocking department last season.

Playing behind that struggling offensive line in 2016, Hyde rushed for a career-high 988 yards, with 67% of those yards coming after contact. Among all running backs with 200 or more carries last season, only two running backs averaged more yards after contact per attempt than Hyde. Breida, a rookie who played at Georgia Southern, excelled in that same category in 2015, averaging 3.61 yards after contact as a college junior, but he followed that up with a down year last season as a senior, when he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry total.

On the flip side, among the 42 running backs with 100 or more carries last season, Hightower ranked 40th in missed tackles forced per attempt. And the analysts at PFF noted that Williams' yards-after-contact numbers are inflated due to him reeling off big runs after contact, and that he actually often struggles making defenders initially miss.

So Does Hyde Fit?

Regardless of who the coach is, it's clear that the 49ers' offensive line has struggled to create room in the running game, and San Francisco needs a running back who can create yards on his own. Breida showed the ability to do that in college, albeit not consistently, but breaking tackles in the Sun Belt Conference is a lot different than doing so in the NFL. It will be important to watch him during the lead-up to the regular season to see whether he can perform against much higher-level competition than he saw in college.

Unless Williams seizes control of the role, or the undrafted Breida shocks us all and proves to be worthy in the preseason, though, Hyde is the best fit to handle the early-down work for San Francisco this season. Over the past nine seasons, Shanahan has shown the propensity to tailor his offense around the abilities of his running backs, and this would not be the first time that the leading rusher did not see the majority of the targets out of the backfield.

During each of Shanahan's last two seasons with Washington, Alfred Morris handled over 60% of the team's total carries, while averaging just 14 targets per season. In fact, only once during Shanahan's five years running the Redskins offense did the leading rusher also see the most targets out of the backfield.

With no Freeman on the roster in San Francisco, Hyde is best suited to handle the early-down work in Shanahan's first years as the head coach, while likely giving way to the the rest of the depth chart in the passing game.