49ers Backfield

Investing in the 49ers Backfield

The San Francisco 49ers backfield enters the 2021 season in a muddy situation. Raheem Mostert is the presumed starter to begin the year, with rookie Trey Sermon and free-agent addition Wayne Gallman serving as backups. Can any of the three be counted on for consistent fantasy production, or will a committee approach deem any running back in San Francisco too risky and inconsistent?

Raheem Mostert’s Job to Lose?

Mostert enters this season as the starter yet hardly feels dependable. Production has not been his primary concern over the past couple of seasons, as he has performed well when called upon. In 2019, Mostert finished the season strong as the RB10 from Weeks 13-17. He continued producing throughout the NFL playoffs, averaging over 18 touches and nearly 115 yards in the three games. 

In his fully healthy games in 2021, Mostert was the RB19 in PPR scoring and RB25 in fantasy points per game (among those that played at least four games in that span). Additionally, Mostert saw more work in the passing game last season, averaging two receptions per game, compared to 0.8 in 2019.

Unfortunately, Mostert has struggled to see consistent playing time. Before his torrid end to 2019, Mostert averaged less than eight touches per game from Weeks 1-12 while never eclipsing 50% snap share. In 2020, injuries prevented Mostert from being dependable as he missed eight full games.

49ers Backfield injuries
Table Courtesy of Draft Sharks

In the 49ers Backfield, Trey Sermon is on Standby

A third-round rookie from Ohio State, Trey Sermon stands to see some action in the San Francisco backfield. Sermon was the fourth running back drafted in April and brings with him the ability to break tackles and create yards.

Whether Mostert is healthy or not, it is reasonable to expect Sermon to contribute as a rookie. If the incumbent starter were to miss any time, Sermon would seemingly see an increase in his workload, making him an intriguing option for fantasy. The potential upside has Sermon drafted as RB34 according to FantasyPros, standing to rise leading up to the season.

The Committee Concern

Mostert may or may not stay healthy, and Sermon may or may not become a solid NFL running back. However, it may not matter as much with both players operating within a Kyle Shannahan-led 49ers backfield. 

Since 2017 (Shannahan’s first season as the head coach), the San Francisco 49ers have given a running back 20 or more carries in a game just eight times. That number is good for fifth-fewest in the NFL during that span, ahead of only Detroit, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and Philadelphia. 

Interestingly, the lack of a “workhorse” running back hasn’t been due to little opportunity. In fact, under Shannahan, the 49ers have the fourth-most games of 20 or more carries as a team. Net: the team runs the ball often but rarely relies on one back.

Is Their Value to be Had in the 49ers Backfield?

For redraft, you can choose to tackle murky situations in one of two ways. Either select the lower-ADP option that may produce similar to the more expensive or choose the player with the higher upside. In this instance, Trey Sermon is both less expensive and has an intriguing ceiling. However, it is likely that as the season approaches, Sermon’s ADP will continue to rise and eventually surpass Mostert. At that point, it’s about finding the tipping point. 

If Sermon climbs higher than RB25, it would be hard to justify spending a fifth-round pick on a committee piece. Assuming he does, I would much rather wait until round 7-8 and take a stab at Mostert, or better yet, use a late-round flier on Wayne Gallman if you’re interested in a piece of the San Francisco rushing attack.

In dynasty, Sermon holds more value based on age alone. While Mostert has only been fantasy-relevant for a couple of seasons, he is already 29 years old. So the argument isn’t which back is more valuable, but rather how high is too high for Sermon. With a current RB25 tag and a late sixth-round price, the valuation feels a bit high. 

The hope is Sermon will flash early enough and Shannahan begins to use him much like he used Carlos Hyde in 2017. Hyde – the fellow former Ohio State running back – saw over 320 opportunities (carries + targets). However, there is a legitimate risk of Shannahan continuing to deploy a committee and limiting Sermon’s upside—enough to deter me from investing.

Make sure to check out Taylor on Twitter @_TaylorCornell!

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