2018 Free Agency: Top Three Running backs the 49ers should target

Right, when you thought the Niners Lives’ pulse was on life support we come right back with a competitive vengeance and bring you another analytical curveball: Top Three Running backs the 49ers should target in free agency. 


Process of Elimination

Let’s get this out the way now running back Le’Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers isn’t walking through that Santa Clara door, Faithful. Recently, Bell at a Pro-Bowl practice held in Orlando, Florida, spoke with optimism that a long-term deal would get done between him and the Steelers, “I think where we were last year at this point, we’re a lot further than we were last year. I think we’ll eventually come to an agreement and hopefully everything goes well,” Bell said Wednesday after Pro Bowl practice.

Recent Niners Live article alerts:  top three edge-rushers and top three cornerbacks the 49ers should target, in free agency, from a different perspective, of course.

Top Three Running backs the 49ers should target

 No.1 Dion Lewis, RB New England Patriots, Two-time Super Bowl champion

 Height: 5-8 Weight: 195   Age: 27

PFF Grade: 87.5 overall, 85.7 running the ball, 77.0 receiving and 78.9 in pass blocking 

Market value: 3 yrs., $15,002,639 (via Spotrac).


In his five seasons, Lewis has played in 54 games starting 19 of those contests, accounting for 1,584 yards rushing (896 yards coming in 2017) on 329 attempts at 4.8 yards per rush and 10 (six coming in 2017) rushing touchdowns. Lewis has also caught 88 balls (32 coming in 2017) for 717 yards at 8.1 yards per catch and five (three coming from 2017) receiving touchdowns. 

Why He Fits

Lewis is a two-time Super-Bowl champion (2015 and 2016, respectively) and brings a ton of playoff experience to the table which bolds well for a team with aspirations of reaching the playoffs in 2018. He’s also the top-ranked elusive running back in free agency and rightfully so; he’s generated a missed tackle every 4.3 carries, third best in the league, and his elusive rating of 73.2 was tops on the list. 

Important to note:  Lewis posted an overall Pro Football Focus grade of 87.5 which ranks fifth best amongst NFL running backs (two spots higher than Bell’s 85.4). 

He’s also an efficient dual-threat coming out the backfield with a 91.4 catching percentage in 2017. And not to be outdone, his pass blocking efforts and efficiency (100.0) is second to none on the list. Throwback stat: Lewis forced 24 missed tackles on only 36 receptions in 2015. He can also run between the tackles and is good in space running or catching. Head coach Kyle Shanahan covets a player of Lewis’ talents and he’s tailor-made for the quick release arm talent of 49ers’ starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

No.2 Jerick McKinnon, RB Minnesota Vikings

Height: 5-9 Weight: 205   Age: 25

PFF Grade: 84.6 overall, 79.9 running the ball, 82.4 receiving and 75.2 in pass blocking 

Market value: 4 yrs., $16,252,344 (via Spotrac).


In his four seasons, McKinnon has played in 58 games, starting 14 of those contests, accounting for 1,918 yards rushing (570 yards coming in 2017) on 474 attempts at 4.0 yards per rush and seven (three coming in 2017) rushing touchdowns. McKinnon has also caught 142 balls (51 coming in 2017) for 984 yards at 6.9 yards per catch and five (two coming from 2017) receiving touchdowns. 

Why He Fits

McKinnon is an efficient dual-threat coming out the backfield with a 75.0% catching percentage in 2017. He ranked 19th among running backs, with 1.54 yards per route run. And his pass blocking efforts and efficiency (92.2) ranks fourth amongst all free agent running backs. 

He also brings a couple years of playoff experience to the table and his 2017 signature playoff game shouldn’t be overlooked; 74 rushing yards on 18 attempts at 4.1 yards per rush and a touchdown. And his production didn’t stop there he added 14 catches for 92 yards.

Interesting to note: McKinnon’s overall Pro Football Focus grade of 84.6 ranks eighth best amongst NFL running backs (one spot behind Bell’s 85.4). 

He may be perceived as nothing more than a “change-of-pace” running back, but you can’t deny his talent and production or the fact that he forced a missed tackle every 5.0 carries, eighth-best in the NFL. As previously mentioned, he’s tailor-made for Shanahan’s offensive system.

He also brings some value as a kick returner with 336 yards on 13 returns for a career average of 25.8.

No.3 Carlos Hyde, RB San Francisco 49ers

Height: 6-0 Weight: 230   Age: 26

PFF Grade: 50.3 overall, 76.7 running the ball, 35.0 receiving and 28.5 in pass blocking 

Market value: 4 yrs., $23,260,807 (via Spotrac).


Carlos Hyde, in 2017, had his best all-around year as a pro, playing and starting all 16 games while accounting for 940 yards rushing on 240 attempts at 3.9 yards per rush and eight rushing touchdowns – all career highs outside of his per rush average. Hyde didn’t stop there in the career-high category. He became a dual threat with 59 catches and 350 yards out the backfield.

Areas of opportunities: According to PFF, no running back gave up more than Hyde’s 13 pressures in pass protection, ranking him seventh amongst free agent running backs. And he also finished with the worst drop rate in the league at 13.2 percent.

Hyde had 1,290 yards from scrimmage while running behind a subpar to average at best interior line base on the eyeball test and Pro Football Focus run grades. Also, the offensive line as a unit was flagged with eight holding penalties that contributed to nullifying big gains by Hyde.

Why He Fits

There’s a lot of talk about what Hyde doesn’t do well, but let’s look at what he does do well, and what he would bring to the playoff table.

  • A runner that’s big, powerful, and physical at the point of attack
  • A back that can break tackles, help control the time of possession, and help rest your defense
  • A back that can help slow down the opponent’s pass rush by wearing them down based on his bruising running style
  • A back that can get the tough/short yards in the playoffs
  • A back that can be a threat in the passing game and be a leader on the field while inspiring his teammates with his natural and necessary toughness and bullying ways

Hyde forced a missed tackle every 5.3 rushes last season, 11th-best among running backs. And he averaged at least 2.8 yards after contact (week 10 against the New York Giants Hyde average 4.9 yards per rush after contact) per rush in his first three years, all well above-average. Hyde also ranked 19th among running backs with an elusive rating of 45.7, forcing 54 total missed tackles and averaging 2.53. 

Hyde is a power back that has displayed the deceptive ability to have a long distance burst (six runs of 20 plus yards in 2017). Hyde’s not a natural catcher of the football but a more than a capable catcher of the football (as seen above career highs in catches 59 coming out the backfield). Hyde was never used as a passing catching threat in his previous three years in the NFL. If given an extended opportunity, this part of Hyde’s game could improve as well as his pass protection ability.

Closing thoughts on the top three running backs the 49ers should target

Lewis would be the ideal fit for reasons mentioned above, and if he’s not in play by the time the start of free agency come March 14 or during, the 49ers couldn’t go wrong by having the services of McKinnon who brings return value and who recently showed his worth on the playoff stage aforementioned. 

As for Hyde, he proved he could stay healthy for a full season, he’s shown the ability to make plays and be a physical/tough no-nonsense tackle-breaking running back at the point of attack. Because General manager John Lynch, coach Shanahan, and his teammates love what he brings to the table, he could be re-signed if both sides could come to a mutual contract ground (per Matt Maiocco).

Please join us again soon on Niners Live, the home of the faithful fan and analyst from an objective/analytical lens, of course. Often imitated, but never duplicated.

All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.comPro Football Focus49ers.comESPN.comNFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author, Content Creator, player break down specialist, Co-Editor Sequoia Sims