SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Take it from one of the San Francisco 49ers’ newest and most expensive additions — running back Tevin Coleman is a positive addition to a running back room that seems to be overflowing with speed and versatility.
“Oh, I’ve got a scouting report on him,” linebacker Kwon Alexander said. “I had to play him twice a year, so, yeah, I know him. … He can catch the ball, run, and make great cuts. He’s got great vision, very fast too. He’s going to be a great addition to this team.”
Alexander and Coleman know each other well from their twice-yearly clashes in the NFC South when Alexander was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Coleman with the Atlanta Falcons. That the 49ers prioritized adding Alexander came as no surprise after Reuben Foster’s release during the season, but some might have been caught off guard by the Niners’ pursuit of Coleman.
After all, with coach Kyle Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner in place, the 49ers have demonstrated the ability to get production from low-cost, lesser-known backs like Matt Breida and Jeff Wilson Jr. And with Jerick McKinnon returning from a torn ACL and Raheem Mostert coming back from a fractured forearm, the Niners’ need at running back paled in comparison to most other positions.
But Shanahan has long been a fan of Coleman’s, and when the free-agent market didn’t yield the type of big-dollar contract some expected he might land, Shanahan and the Niners couldn’t resist signing him to a two-year deal worth up to $8.5 million.
“We were very fortunate to have a chance to get Tevin,” Shanahan said. “(We) didn’t really think that at all that would be a possibility of going through. It ended up working out.”
As the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator, Shanahan was part of the team that took Coleman in the third round of the 2015 NFL draft and spent two seasons helping him develop. After getting his feet wet as a rookie, Coleman was a productive tag team partner with Devonta Freeman in 2016, breaking through with 941 scrimmage yards, 11 touchdowns and averages of 4.41 yards per carry and 13.6 yards per reception. Coleman put up similar numbers in each of the past two years before hitting the free-agent market.
While the ties between Shanahan and Coleman made San Francisco a possibility, it seemed unlikely unless Coleman’s price landed somewhere close to bargain status. When it happened, the Niners pounced despite already having McKinnon, Breida and Mostert in the plans, along with high-priced fullback Kyle Juszczyk. That group was already expected to count about $14.38 million against this year’s salary cap before signing Coleman or finalizing the three-year deal the team did with Mostert on Friday.
Coleman’s addition immediately raised questions about how all the pieces will fit and whether one of the backs could be on the way out. McKinnon, who is due to count $5.75 million against the cap, seemed to have the most tenuous status considering his guaranteed money has already been paid and he is coming off a torn ACL.
When Shanahan was asked whether the 49ers were concerned about McKinnon’s recovery or if he was comfortable carrying four tailbacks on the roster, he didn’t sound like someone who was going to shy away from doing something a little different at the position.
“I consider it a very good thing,” Shanahan said. “There’s a lot of guys we have confidence in and a lot of guys with some different skill sets too that we can use differently.”
While all four backs are known for their speed — Coleman has already mused that the quartet of tailbacks would make an excellent 4×100 relay team — they all bring something different to the table.
McKinnon was expected to be a serious factor in the pass game before his injury last year. Breida showed he can be a dynamic outside runner in his second season. And Mostert is one of the game’s best special teams players who also showed some running ability in 2018.
In Coleman, the Niners landed their most balanced and, perhaps most important, their most durable. In the Niners’ injury-plagued 2018 season, perhaps no position on offense was hit harder by a variety of ailments than running back. McKinnon missed all 16 games, Mostert missed seven and Breida missed two, though he also departed multiple games with a nagging ankle issue.
By the end of the season, the Niners had four backs assume the role of the primary option in the run game at one point or another. And while that group still managed to produce 2,580 scrimmage yards and nine touchdowns, those numbers tailed off toward the end of the season with just 481 yards from scrimmage and one touchdown in the final four games.
All of which helps to explain why San Francisco could go into the season with more backs than Shanahan has ever carried on the roster.
That isn’t to say the Niners wouldn’t listen if someone showed interest in a trade for one of the team’s backs, but it’s far from outrageous to think all four will stick around for the season. Even if that quartet isn’t active on game day each week, last season served as a resounding reminder that depth is likely to come into play at some point.
“You can do anything you want,” Shanahan said. “But, you’ve got to make sense of it all. I think we’re in a situation right now, just looking at our roster, that I think it could make a lot of sense this year.”