How to Handle the San Francisco 49ers' Backfield in Fantasy Football
Last season saw rushing success galore for the San Francisco 49ers as they finished with the second-most rushing yards per game in the league en route to an NFC title and a Super Bowl appearance.
That rushing success didn't translate to consistent fantasy football production, however, for anyone in their backfield. Sure, there were fantasy points to be had, but a lot of those points likely ended up on fantasy benches due to the unpredictable weekly usage the Niners employed.
in three seasons perusing the Bay Area sidelines, coac Kyle Shanahan has produced three different leading rushers -- Carlos Hyde, Matt Breida, and most recently Raheem Mostert. Further muddying the picture for 2020 is the fact the Shanahan seems perfectly content with a committee approach, which was used heavily in 2018 and 2019, with no back exceeding 153 carries in those two seasons.
That's both a good and bad thing. Good in that this offense seems capable of turning just about anyone into a productive runner, but bad in that we don't know who the productive runner will be going into a campaign.
Will the same ring true in 2020, or can we confidently predict how this backfield will play out? Taking a player-by-player look, here's how you should draft the Niners' backfield for this season.
Starting with the leading rusher from a year ago, Mostert emerged down the stretch, carrying the ball at least 10 times in each game from Week 12 on and garnering a whopping 29 carries in a dominant showing in the NFC Championship Game.
Regrettably, Mostert also comes with a plethora of flaws. Foremost, he's small. Sources vary wildly on Mostert's weight, but somewhere in the range of 195 pounds (at 5'10") seems to be the most common ground. That's simply much smaller than NFL backs tend to be, especially when paired with his second flaw, which is a lack of utility in the passing game. Mostert was targeted only 22 times throughout the 2019 season, a rate which failed to increase during his late-season tear. From Week 12 on (including the postseason), Mostert was targeted no more than twice. On top of all that, Mostert is already past the age apex at 28.
That's not to say Mostert is without positives. He was efficient with his carries and lead his chief opportunity rival, Tevin Coleman, by a wide margin in Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry, coming in at 0.15, compared to Coleman's -0.07. For context, the league average was -0.01 Rushing NEP per attempt.
The mitigating factor for Mostert is that he isn't going particularly high right now-- just RB27 and 54th overall, according to Bestball10's June ADP. Our projections put him at RB24 -- 909 rushing yards, 202 receiving yards, and 9.2 total touchdowns -- so his current ADP actually makes him something of a value. Granted, that's standard scoring. Rookies with pass-catching upside like Cam Akers, D'Andre Swift, and Ke'Shawn Vaughn may be worthwhile alternatives in this price range, especially in full or half-point PPR leagues, though Mostert is more locked-in to an early season role than those three are.
If Mostert is overpriced only because of the alternatives in his ADP range, Coleman faces a far less steep opportunity cost, going 99th overall (RB41).
Despite spending more time in the fantasy zeitgeist, Coleman, who is 27, is actually a year younger than Mostert. As alluded to above, however, Coleman was significantly worse than both Mostert and the league average in terms of Rushing NEP per carry at a clip of -0.07. This doesn't speak well for Coleman, but he has been better -- if inconsistent -- in the past, including a rate of -0.01 Rushing NEP per attempt in 2018.
We project Coleman for 626 rushing yards, 189 receiving yards, and 7.4 total touchdowns -- making him our RB33. But with backup running backs, the question isn't so much how many fantasy points they're projected for, but rather how likely they are to see a bigger role. For Coleman, a bit of randomness, regression to his personal mean, and an injury to Mostert (or another San Fran back) could mean a bigger role.
Coleman is very much going in dart-throw territory and is more than worth the price at those cost. He'll likely have a role no matter what, and he has an opportunity for a bigger role in what should once again be a superb rushing attack.
It's hard to recommend a player coming off two straight inactive seasons, and to be sure, Jerick McKinnon is best left on your waiver wire. He's now 28, but believe it or not, he is younger than Mostert by about a month. It also wouldn't be shocking to see a pass-game role for McKinnon. He's never been particularly efficient there, but his 68 targets in 2017 are the most -- by far -- of any member of this backfield.
McKinnon will forever have a fan club (me among them) after entering the league as an option quarterback with a 100th percentile Sparq-X score, according to PlayerProfiler, but it's hard to expect anything meaningful from him in fantasy this season. Then again, not much was expected from Mostert in 2019. McKinnon is a name to file away as someone who checks some boxes in a good offense, but he's no more than that.
Last year, the most common advice in regards to the Niners' backfield was "draft the cheapest." Many people took that to mean Breida, but it turned out people weren't thinking cheaply enough as Mostert wound up being the right answer.
Does this mean we should have our eyes on Jeff Wilson in 2020? Well, no. But if nothing else Wilson has the size (6'0", 213 pounds) and is the youngest back in San Fran. The 49ers also have a propensity to give Wilson goal-line carries, but if it's tough to project a role for McKinnon it's downright impossible to project one for Wilson. Maybe he emerges on the waiver wire, but he should remain there in anything but the deepest of leagues.
While this piece may come across as a case for avoiding San Francisco's backfield entirely, that's not necessarily the approach I'm taking. Instead, the recommended strategy is to proceed with caution while considering all of the options.
There's no particular player to focus on here -- you can't just draft the cheapest, and you can't completely avoid all of these backs. Well, Kyle Juszczyk can be avoided, but everyone else is worth thinking about.
Of the bunch, Coleman will probably be the guy I have the most shares of. He's a cheap way to get exposure to a good rushing game, and if he catches a few breaks, Coleman could wind up with a signifcant role in 2020.
But I'll also have some Mostert, and both McKinnon and Wilson will be on watchlists. By definition, players who come out of nowhere are incredibly difficult to predict, but McKinnon and Wilson could vault into relevance. We've seen it before with this San Fran backfield.