Buyer Beware: Carlos Hyde Could Disappoint in 2015
Watching 49ers games last season, the one thing that stood out to me was that I could never tell when Frank Gore was in at running back and when rookie Carlos Hyde was filling in for him instead.
And for those of you wondering, no, this wasn't a good thing.
Whereas Gore seemed to have lost the shiftiness, agility and breakaway speed that made him such a force for the 49ers offense during the better part of the past decade, it looked as if Hyde never had any of these things to begin with.
Yet, others seem to remember Carlos Hyde's rookie season a little bit differently. With Frank Gore now in Indianapolis and the Niners second-year man out of Ohio State now sitting atop the team's depth chart, many are actually predicting a breakout for Hyde in 2015.
Unfortunately, as I'll soon discuss, I have a few reasons to be a bit less optimistic for his prospects this upcoming season.
Hyde's Rookie Year in Review
To assess Carlos Hyde's rookie year performance, let's first start by discussing our signature metric here at numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP).
In a nutshell, NEP is a measure of a player's contributions to a team's chances of scoring above or below expectation. If a player makes a play that improves his team's chances of scoring (depending on exact down and distance) he receives a positive score, if he does the opposite, as you might expect, he receives a negative score.
This allows us to differentiate between "gimme" production and production that comes in important situations. For example, with NEP, not all four-yard runs are created equally. A four-yard run on 3rd-and-3 -- which results in a first down -- keeps the chains moving, and gives a team three more downs to try to score the football. That's worth far more than a four-yard run on 3rd-and-20, which results in a punt.
Now that we've gone over all this, how did Carlos Hyde do last season?
The first thing that stands out is Hyde's less than stellar -7.94 Total NEP from last season. In other words, Hyde's rookie year touches -- resulting in 401 yards on 83 carries and 12 receptions -- actually cost his team almost eight points on the season when measured against historical expectations. This figure ranked Hyde as the 55th most efficient back in the league among all players with at least 50 attempts last season, right behind Storm Johnson, Doug Martin, and fellow backfield teammate Frank Gore.
Some might argue that Hyde is allowed a pass since he was still adjusting to the pro game as a rookie. And indeed, when we look at the career arc of running backs in the league, we see that these players don't truly hit their stride until their second or third year in the league.
However, when we look back at all running backs drafted since 2000, Hyde's Total NEP is still well below the historical average of 1.54 for these backs in their first season in the league.
If you've followed Hyde before the draft, none of this should come as a surprise. Concerns from scouts regarding the Niners current lead back focused on his lack of breakaway speed and limited elusiveness, which was further confirmed by his sub-par numbers in the speed (4.66 40-time) department at the NFL Combine.
On that note, what's even more concerning is that all this inefficiency on the ground still occurred despite Hyde owning one of the highest broken tackle rates in the league according to Pro Football Focus. Using his bruising 6' 0", 235-pound build, the Niners first-year back forced 25 total missed or broken tackles on his 83 carries (30.1%), putting him in the same company as backs like Marshawn Lynch (34.1%).
But of the tailbacks ranked in the top 10 of the league in forced missed tackles, Hyde still did the least in moving the chains on a per-touch basis, with his -0.09 Rushing NEP per attempt ranking him dead last on this list in this metric.
And despite Hyde's size and ability to break tackles, he also failed to stand out in the red zone. With limited touches, Hyde was only able to convert 4 of his 19 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line into touchdowns. Contrast this with fellow rookie Isaiah Crowell in Cleveland, who converted his 15 red zone attempts into 7 touchdowns last year.
Reports recently have stated that Hyde has shed some weight this offseason, dropping between 10-15 pounds to measure in around the 220-pound range. While this might help with Hyde's burst and agility -- emphasis on might -- it may also hamper the edge he had in the tackle-breaking department. Either way, how Hyde plays at his reduced weight and whether it can improve on his sub-par Combine metrics will be something to watch for this preseason.
Less Than Ideal Conditions
Others will argue that Hyde's inefficiency last season can be blamed largely on his team situation. The 49ers as a whole did regress in 2014, falling to just 20th in the league in total offense and failing to make the playoffs for the first time in the far too short-lived Jim Harbaugh era with a disappointing 8-8 record.
Well, sorry to break it to everyone, but it doesn't look like it's going to get any better for San Francisco this season, either.
Suffering through what is perhaps one of the worst offseason in sports history, the Niners lost the league's top-ranked run blocking left guard in Mike Iupati to Arizona in free agency, and then starting right tackle and fellow 2010 first-round selection Anthony Davis to retirement.
With this type of turnover on the offensive line, Hyde will be hard-pressed to improve on his 4.0 yards-per-carry average from last year.
And losing these two key starters on offense is just the beginning for the Niners problems. As our own Joe Redemann stated before, things on the defensive side of the ball look just as bleak.
After superstar linebacker Patrick Willis' surprise retirement, things continued to get worse, as Chris Borland, Justin Smith, Dan Skuta, Chris Culliver, and Perrish Cox would all leave the team via retirement or free agency over the next few days and weeks. It was as if every time you looked up, another key player was leaving the team.
The impact of these defensive losses on the running game may be just as big as their misfortunes on the offensive line.
With Vegas placing the over-under line for the Niners at 8.5 wins, the likelihood of San Francisco playing from behind a lot next season is relatively high. This not only means less running plays being called as the team tries to air it out to eat up chunks of yards and conserve the clock -- but as we'll soon see -- with pass catching back Reggie Bush now in town, likely means less time on the field for Hyde as well.
The Reggie Bush Factor
Hyde's performance in the passing game in his rookie year was rather forgettable, putting up 12 receptions for 68 yards on just 16 targets.
It makes sense then that the Niners would choose to bring in free agent Reggie Bush this offseason to work in as the team's change-of-pace and third down back.
As I wrote during Bush's signing a few months ago, his skills in the short passing game fit in almost perfectly with quarterback Colin Kaepernick's strengths utilizing players in this area of the field.
Indeed, Kaepernick's most successful seasons in the league came when nearly two-thirds of his passes flew less than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. And as I mentioned previously, this skill set will be leaned on fairly heavily when the team has to play from behind.
All this bodes poorly for Hyde. With Bush's role cemented in the passing game and given the inefficiency Hyde displayed on the ground last season, this may open the door for Bush to also start eating into the second-year back's early down duties sooner rather than later.
With Hyde's less-than-stellar showing in his rookie year combined with the Niners tumultuous offseason and loss of passing down work to veteran back Reggie Bush, Hyde's leap to superstardom this season is far from guaranteed. And given his ADP of 41, which has him going in the early fourth-round in most 12-team leagues, that's just a bit too much draft capital to commit to someone surrounded by so much uncertainty going into 2015.