Will Mike Davis Make an Immediate Impact for the 49ers?
Oh how a year can change things.
Following an impressive 2013 campaign for the South Carolina Gamecocks, running back Mike Davis was riding high and being mentioned as a future NFL difference maker alongside names like Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, and T.J. Yeldon.
His sophomore year had seen him tear through highly ranked SEC competition to the tune of 1,535 total yards and 11 touchdowns. His 5.8 yards per carry was impressive, especially considering he was the focal point of the offense and teams were determined to stop him.
He entered the 2014 season as one of the top running back prospects in the country, demonstrating outstanding power and deceptive speed to go along with an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and wear down defenses. While not outstanding in the open field, he demonstrated the decisiveness to accelerate through the hole and run through arm tackles. Being picked high in the NFL draft (for a running back, at least) seemed well within reason.
And then 2014 happened, and everything changed.
While battling injuries and rumored conditioning issues (seemingly an issue for South Carolina prospects), Davis fell 18 yards short of his second consecutive 1,000-yard season and saw his yards per carry average drop by almost a full yard. While the season wasn’t a complete failure in terms of production, Davis didn’t look like the same player and struggled to demonstrate the energy and speed he had in 2013.
While never known as an agile and creative back, his lack of explosion and burst was evident, and he struggled to beat defenders to the edge with the ease he had demonstrated the year before. Some of it may have been injuries, with many reporting he battled rib and upper body issues throughout the season, but it was clear that the 2014 version of Mike Davis was not a top prospect at the running back position.
So which Mike Davis will the 49ers be getting?
A Future Starter in San Francisco?
Now, there is a presumed timeshare between last year’s second-round pick Carlos Hyde and the recently signed Reggie Bush awaiting Davis. After dominating teams on the ground in 2013, the 49ers really struggled to establish the line of scrimmage and develop a consistent running attack in 2014.
In terms of Net Expected Points, or NEP, our in-house metric that compares a player or team’s production to league expectation level, the 49ers were the 17th-best team on a per-rush basis when adjusted for schedule, losing 0.03 points with every carry.
While their overall rushing totals were in the top 10, much of that is inflated due to the ability of Colin Kaepernick's 639 yards on the ground, and the release of Gore and the additions of Davis and Bush and evidence that improvement is desired.
Carlos Hyde is the favorite to lead the team in carries and is a popular preseason sleeper, but his numbers weren't particularly impressive last season. Hyde rushed for only 333 yards as a rookie, posting a below average Rushing NEP per play of -0.09, which was on par with Trent Richardson (-0.09) and Bishop Sankey (-0.10).
Hyde also struggled as a receiver, with he and Mark Ingram being the only two running backs in the NFL with more than 10 catches to post a negative Reception NEP sore, which presumably is why Bush was added to the team.
But with the former Lions running back only signed to a one-year contract, Davis could be an intriguing dynasty stash in fantasy football for those unconvinced that Hyde will be the long-term answer.
Davis will likely be buried on the bench in 2015 but offers value for those who can afford to wait a year for him to get his chance. If Carlos Hyde struggles once again, the door could be wide open for Davis to start on a team committed to pounding the football. The team invested a fourth-round draft pick on him for a reason.