49ers face major decision at running back

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Someone has to go.

It’s the best group of running backs in the NFL but it can’t stay together any longer. The 49ers must give one running back the boot.

They can’t keep five on their roster next season — they can keep just four. That’s how many running backs the 49ers carried on their roster each of the past two seasons.

“And we’ve needed all four,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said this week at the NFL Scouting Combine. “It’s something that I used to look at as a luxury. Now I’m almost feeling like it’s a necessity.”

And a fifth running back is an extravagance almost no team can afford, considering teams can keep just 53 players, and only one running back can play at a time, plus a fullback, of course.

One of the following running backs will be the odd man out:

1. Jerick McKinnon.

McKinnon spent the past two seasons on the Injured Reserve list with a torn ACL. During that time, the 49ers paid him more than $16 million even though he never played a down in the regular season.

Shanahan coveted McKinnon big time before he tore his ACL. The 49ers gave him a four-year, $30 million contract in 2017. Huge money for a running back. In 2020, McKinnon’s contract will cost the 49ers’ $8.55 million of their salary cap space, currently less than $13 million. He’ll be the seventh-most-expensive player on the team next season unless they restructure his contract, which they almost certainly will.

The 49ers can restructure McKinnon’s deal to a league-minimum salary which includes incentives and bonuses if he plays well. And McKinnon most likely will accept this new contract because if he doesn’t, the 49ers almost certainly would release him. He has no leverage.

McKinnon probably will stick around.

2. Jeff Wilson Jr.

Wilson Jr. started last season on the 49ers’ practice squad, but appeared in 10 regular season games and earned a role as a red-zone specialist, both as a runner and as a receiver out of the backfield. He touched the ball just 30 times, but scored a whopping five touchdowns — one every six touches. Remarkable.

Wilson Jr. is an Exclusive Rights Free Agent because he has played only two seasons in the NFL. To keep Wilson Jr., the 49ers merely would have to offer him a one-year contract at the league minimum, which they probably will do.

Expect Wilson Jr. to stick around.

3. Raheem Mostert.

Last offseason, Mostert signed a three-year extension through 2021. Then last season, he emerged as an elite running back and one of the best players on the 49ers. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry during the regular season and rushed for 220 yards in the NFC Championship game.

Mostert isn’t going anywhere.

But the 49ers could restructure his deal. The one he signed last year is a cheap special-teams contract. He will earn “just” $3.1 million in 2020 — he should earn double that. He’s not a mere special-teams ace anymore. The 49ers should give him a new deal that reflects his status near the top of the 49ers’ offensive pecking order.

Mostert should stick around and get a raise.

4. Matt Breida.

The past two seasons, Breida averaged 5.2 yards per carry — more than any other NFL running back who attempted at least 275 carries. Impressive. Breida easily could start for 10 teams, and he could be the main change-of-pace back for the remaining 22. He’s that good.

The 49ers signed Breida as an undrafted free agent in 2017, and in March he’ll be a restricted free agent. The 49ers must decide if they will tender him an offer, or let him leave.

The 49ers could give Breida the Right of First Refusal Tender, meaning, according to league rules, they’d have to offer him a one-year contract worth at least $2.14 million to keep him. And if another team offers Breida a larger contract, the 49ers would have to match it or let him leave.

A one-year contract worth $2.14 million seems like a good deal for Breida, but the 49ers buried him on the depth chart the second half of the season. He fumbled during the 49ers’ divisional playoff game against the Vikings, then carried the ball just once in the NFC Championship against the Packers, then didn’t play at all in the Super Bowl.

Breida doesn’t seem like a player the 49ers want to pay $2 million next season, even though he earned the raise.

So while Breida should stick around, he probably won’t.

5. Tevin Coleman.

Coleman was the 49ers’ starting running back last season even though he didn’t play particularly well. He averaged only four yards per carry.

Coleman is relatively cheap — he will earn $4.9 million from the 49ers next season. But if they release him, they would create $4.9 million in salary cap space which they could use to re-sign Breida and restructure Mostert — two running backs who outperformed Coleman in 2019.

But Shanahan seems to love Coleman. Shanahan was with the Falcons when they drafted Coleman in 2015, Shanahan was with the 49ers when they signed Coleman to a two-year, $8.5 million contract in 2019 and Shanahan kept Coleman in the starting lineup even after Mostert ran for 220 yards in the NFC Championship.

So although Coleman probably should be the odd man out, the 49ers most likely will keep him one more year, because he and Shanahan know each other well.

Which leads to this eternal truth about football: Sometimes knowing the head coach comes with perks.

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