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49ers running backs depth chart: Matt Breida has made the backfield all his own

Remember when Matt Breida was signed as a UDFA running back for the San Francisco 49ers in 2017? I do. I remember looking at him, the recently drafted Joe Williams, and promising Carlos Hyde and saying, “camp body.”

But then he outplayed everyone (except for Hyde) and word came out that the 49ers were high on him through training camp. Next thing you know, he’s not just splitting carries with Hyde, he’s outplaying Hyde. At the end of the season, Breida was kept and Hyde was not re-signed. The 49ers went with Jerick McKinnon as the featured back, but you knew Breida had something.

Then McKinnon blew out his knee. The 49ers signed Alfred Morris, but it didn’t take long for it to become Breida’s backfield, and there’s no way anyone is wrenching it from him. Even when injured and looking to be yanked for a Sunday as a precaution, Breida finds a way into the lineup and makes an impact every game. The flashy play in Week 2 against the Detroit Lions was something, but the performance he just had against the New York Giants was something else. 101 yards, two touchdowns, one of which was both a genius play-call and a great catch.

All of a sudden Breida isn’t a last resort, he’s a focal point. One that worked his tail off to get there and one who is no longer a young rookie, but a veteran with an example set to the younger players next year. Kyle Shanahan looks at him and tight end George Kittle as the hardest workers on the team:

“He’s worked on it a lot. Breida’s worked on everything. Breida, I just told our team the other day, and we have lots of guys that work hard, I think all of our guys work hard. But, in terms of taking it to a whole ‘nother level, Breida and Kittle showed that the first day of OTAs. They were just pretty obsessive in everything they were doing. Every little detail of their game, and it’s improved in a lot of areas. And Breida in the pass game, he wasn’t our number one target last year. We used [Jacksonville Jaguars RB] Carlos [Hyde] a lot out of the backfield. He got most of those reps. And with [RB Jerick McKinnon] Jet going down this year, it’s given Breida more opportunities. He worked a lot in this offseason so he could be ready for those opportunities.”

Remember, Williams was thought to be Shanahan’s guy. If Breida panned out it would be icing on the cake. Now Brieda is the guy. Some are not fortunate to get a chance to show what they have, and when they get it, it gets ripped right away after. Breida’s made the most of everything he has.

Of course, the only thing to look at when you see Breida gashing defenders is what could have been. What would have been with Jerick McKinnon. Having both Breida and McKinnon in on a play to create misdirections (throw Kyle Juszczyk in there for good measure). Have to wonder if Shanahan is thinking the same thing about putting those two on the same down:

“I envisioned it this year, so that won’t change next year.”

Imagine what the backfield could look like with three strong pass catchers available? We’ve started to see it with Breida and Juszczyk back there, but imagine being able to swap in McKinnon as well? Or what about getting really crazy with all three in the backfield? We saw the 49ers run the full-house pistol formation quite a bit under Jim Harbaugh. We could see plenty of that, but how about they throw everybody off with a wishbone formation as well? The world will be Kyle Shanahan’s oyster when McKinnon returns.

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