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Raheem Mostert and his agent, Brett Tessler, requested a trade last week after failing to receive a raise from the 49ers. Prior to last year, Mostert signed a three-year, $8.7 million extension with San Francisco, paying him as an elite special teams player. He will make $3.16 million this year, per OverTheCap, and $3.51 million in 2020, when he’s 29 years old.
But after an elite year in which Mostert led all running backs in yards per carry average (5.8 yards) and was a dominant playoff presence, Mostert’s agent requested that the 49ers bump Mostert’s salary about $1.5 to $2 million, to be paid in line with Tevin Coleman, the team’s highest-paid running back.
The 49ers declined to cut Coleman this offseason for zero dead cap hit, allowing $2 million of his salary to guarantee. With two years remaining on his deal at age 28, an elite scheme fit playing the most devalued position in the NFL on a team that has replaced that position about as efficiently as any team in the NFL, having signed two undrafted free agents, with three other rostered options, and an astounding number of elite running backs up for free agency next season, Mostert’s leverage is, simply put, low.
It’s unclear how this will play out. If Mostert decides he will not report and stick to the trade demand, and the 49ers acquiesce, there would be a Mostert-less backfield in Santa Clara next year.
He’s probably the safest bet to be the starter, and I mean starter in the traditional sense that he’d start the game. At least at the outset of the season, he’d probably lead the team in carries, too. That’s independent of the fact he performed poorly down the stretch of the regular season (3.21 yards per carry over his last nine games, 1 TD, 212 total yards), but had one stellar playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings before breaking his forearm against the Green Bay Packers.
I believe he should have been cut or traded this offseason, and that’s not to say he’s an abysmal player, just replaceable. It would have freed up $4.55 million in cap space with no dead cap and allowed Jeff Wilson Jr. to slide into his role with roughly the same level of production on a minimum-level salary. A slight pay raise for Mostert might still not have been in the cards, but the notion would have been more amenable to the 49ers and it would have provided further breathing room for a George Kittle extension. Your backfield would then be Mostert-Wilson-Jerick McKinnon-JaMycal Hasty.
But that reality has evaporated now, and Coleman, who was verifiably the worst 49ers running back for the longest stretch of last season, is in line to be the starter. At his best, he’s bruising physically, with well above average speed, and when he hits the hole at full speed, he’s as good as any running back the 49ers have and can make plays as a receiving threat out of the backfield.
At his worst, he’s tentative in approaching the line of scrimmage, getting tackled consistently for at most, 2-to-3-yard gains, and oftentimes looks unprepared for the plethora of swing passes out of the backfield that come his way. Without Mostert, do you feel comfortable relying on a player with that sort of downside?
Jeff Wilson Jr.
The red zone king. All Wilson did was score touchdowns last year (4 rushing TD, 1 receiving TD), bulldozing his way with burst through short yardage situations and catching aptly designed Texas routes in key situations, like to walk off against the Cardinals and to throw off the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. While Coleman is by no means old (27), he does have some wear and injuries, while Wilson is fresher, and looked a more consistent pass-catching threat out of the backfield.
He’s being paid on a minimum salary and will be a restricted free agent next season, but currently provides the physical, shifty change of pace that Coleman did when he was at his best. He’s the second-most reliable option (which sounds insane) behind Coleman if Mostert is out.
Who knows what to expect from McKinnon? He had an outstanding first preseason before tearing his ACL, which suddenly and unceremoniously wiped away back-to-back seasons for him. Is he healthy? What defines “healthy” for McKinnon? Is it enough to be a rotational back? A 30 percent carry load?
If the 49ers were able to get 5-to-10 snaps a game from McKinnon, I think they’d be happy, though he wouldn’t. Without Mostert, he’s the first in line to replace that role as the run-full-freaking-speed-through-the-hole back who creates constant issues for opposing defenses. He’s also maybe the best pass threat on the team, so there’s a scenario where he takes a heavy dose of snaps as a receiving threat.
There is a world in which McKinnon wins comeback player of the year and takes the 49ers’ effective starting running back role (“effective starting,” meaning the majority of the snaps, not starting the game), and there’s a world in which he never takes a snap for the team. More than likely, his season for 2020 lies somewhere in between that range. If he can get back to the level of health he once had, though, it will lean more toward that comeback player of the year type season than the guy who never plays a regular-season down for the 49ers, especially if Mostert is gone.
JaMycal Hasty and Salvon Ahmed
Of the two undrafted rookie free agents the 49ers signed, Hasty is the better bet to make the roster. From the undrafted rookie roundup:
Hasty’s main knock in a Shanahan offense is that he doesn’t always hit the hole full speed like Raheem Mostert, but he came from a Big 12 offense, where passing was prioritized and run blocking wasn’t spectacular. Shanahan will want less patience in hitting the hole, but something tells me Hasty has the instincts to burst through. On film, he’s got blinding acceleration and was one of the best pass-catching backs in the draft. That receiving ability could ease the pain of losing McKinnon, or Coleman (who had a horrible time catching the ball down the stretch).
Ahmed is just way too hesitant and has scary poor vision. The number of times you watch his film and try to figure out why he abandoned an open running lane is just puzzling. Timestamped for your displeasure. The thing that gives him a chance is his burst and straight-line speed. He seems like he can get through a hole faster than Hasty, but Hasty’s instincts are far better. In a likely abbreviated offseason, my hunch is the 49ers go with the unproven prospect who doesn’t need to be developed. One or both will likely be a practice squad player.
Of those two, Ahmed seems like the one with longer-term upside in that he could be stashed on the practice squad for a year and, in theory, round out the flaws in his game, though indecision is not so easily remedied. Hasty, though, looks like he already has the skillset to be the 49ers’ No. 4 running back, which, given that McKinnon hasn’t proven he’s reliable yet and both Coleman and Wilson aren’t pure speed backs, it could be a substantial, at least rotational role.