For anyone looking at the San Francisco 49ers depth chart, it would appear that the team has every intention of using a three-headed approach at running back in 2015.
There will be a hierarchy for sure, and the majority of the touches seem to be going the way of RB Carlos Hyde at the moment. However, that doesn’t mean that RB Kendall Hunter and RB Reggie Bush can’t earn their fair share of playing time as well.
What will be interesting to see is exactly how new OC Geep Cryst decides to use this group, and whether or not he can truly cater to their strengths. The presumed three-headed approach will be a different way of doing things in San Francisco, as the previous Jim Harbaugh led coaching regime stuck to more of a two back rotation.
From 2011-2014, the 49ers handed the ball off to a running back 1,547 times during the regular season (this excludes the 22 carries from FB Bruce Miller during that time frame). 93 percent of those carries were given to the top two backs on the depth chart.
With 1,071 attempts, RB Frank Gore accounted for 69 percent of the total, while the “second back” received the remaining 24 percent (372 carries.). That “second back” was a mix of Hunter, Hyde and RB LaMichael James.
Hunter was given 262 attempts from 2011-2013, Hyde 83 in 2014, and James had 27 while filling in for Hunter after he was injured in 2012.
Beyond the top two backs, the remaining opportunities were few and far between, as there were only another 104 carries (seven percent) to go around during those four years. The majority of those were mostly of the short yardage variety and came courtesy of RB Anthony Dixon, who had 78 carries from 2011-2013.
San Francisco runners combined for about 24 carries a game under Harbaugh, and it’s safe to say those numbers will be similar under Jim Tomsula.
While Hyde is likely to see the most amount of touches, he probably won’t get quite as many as Gore, who averaged just under 17 of the 24.
Hyde is still learning the ropes in the NFL, and while he gained 4.0 yards per carry last year, his numbers could be a little misleading. Hyde actually averaged under 3.0 yards per carry in six of his 14 games, and when given nine carries or more (four games), his yards per rush was 2.7.
This could have been due to the overarching issues that plagued the entire 49ers’ offense in 2014, but for now it’s the only sample to go on.
The Niners are expecting Hyde to be more consistent moving forward, and whether or not that happens would dictate if his number of touches will approach that of Gore, or equal out to more of a time share.
Hunter missed all of last season with an ACL, which was the second major injury of his career. When healthy though, he’s been a consistent and effective change of pace back.
In 43 career regular season games, Hunter has 262 carries for 1,202 yards (4.6 per attempt) and seven rushing touchdowns. If you do the math, you’d see he received about six touches a game. Hunter has also been effective in the passing game when called upon, securing 27 of 42 total targets (64 percent).
If 100 percent, it’s not out of the question to expect similar results from Hunter, with his role possibly even being expanded depending on whether or not Hyde takes another step forward.
The wild card here is what the plans are for Bush. He only received 76 carries in 11 games with the Detroit Lions last season, and while the 49ers could ride the hot hand, he may not get much more than that come 2015. Five carries a game would put him at 80, and that may be optimistic if Hyde and Hunter are doing their part.
What Bush will do is give life to a passing game that only attempted five screen passes to backs in 2014. Quarterbacks have a completion percentage of 72.5 percent when throwing Bush’s way, and he’s averaged 4.0 receptions per game over his career.
If everything stays status quo, it’s probably realistic to think Bush would get five-to-seven touches a game (in some variety), with his role being expanded should an injury occur. He could also see his numbers spike if the 49ers get behind and are forced to throw.