Niner Noise’s “Who Is?” series on 2017 San Francisco 49ers players rolls along. And in this episode, we look at veteran running back Tim Hightower and his team fit.
One of the numerous offseason goals for the San Francisco 49ers was to bring in players who understood head coach Kyle Shanahan’s complex offense.
Veteran running back Tim Hightower is one of these players, brought in by the Niners last April.
Hightower worked under Shanahan back in 2011, when both were part of the Washington Redskins organization. And Hightower, whose 2011 knee injury kept him off the field until 2015, should wind up being the mentor to an already crowded San Francisco backfield.
San Francisco 49ers
Over his career, the 31-year-old veteran has accumulated 2,977 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns on the ground while averaging 4.0 yards per carry. Through the air, Hightower has amassed 1,208 receiving yards and two touchdowns as well.
His age certainly works against him in the long-term scheme of things. But as a supplementary piece, Hightower may have a good fit as his career winds down.
Yet San Francisco’s running back crop is awfully crowded. Carlos Hyde figures to be the featured back but will be pressed by rookie Joe Williams, a third-round draft pick. In addition, depth pieces like Raheem Mostert, Kapri Bibbs and Matt Breida also work into the equation.
So what should we expect out of Hightower in this offseason competition and beyond?
Why He’ll Improve
Hightower has the added bonus of knowing Shanahan’s offense, which gives him a leg up in the mental aspects of what San Francisco will do on the ground.
And even though he saw limited action with the New Orleans Saints, the veteran tailback still managed 4.1 yards per carry — slightly above his career average — which might be an indication he’s far from slowing down.
That injury from 2011? Well, it also means his body didn’t face the punishment players at his position usually deal with at the prime of their careers.
Unfortunate as it might have been, this probably extended Hightower’s career.
One of the other notable attributes making Hightower a 53-man roster candidate is his ability to double in the passing game, which might make him a usable piece in Shanahan’s offense.
Why He’ll Regress
Even though the wear and tear might not be as pressing a factor, age still is. Rare are NFL running backs capable of continuing effective careers into their 30s.
And while Hightower does have the Shanahan connection, that 2011 injury limited him to just five games that season. So it isn’t as if we can totally conclude he’s a master of this offensive scheme. More knowledgeable than the others, perhaps. But not necessarily a bona fide expert.
It’s also worth pointing out Hightower has averaged just 3.76 yards in his career against NFC West teams over a total of 24 games — the most contests out of any division.
This isn’t a promising stat line, and it’s all but guaranteed Hightower’s chances will be limited at best.
What to Expect in 2017
Hightower is going to have a long road to make the 53-man roster. Both Hyde and Williams are cemented atop the veteran on the depth chart almost by default.
And San Francisco might rather keep Breida as a No. 3 option, considering some early head-turning moments this offseason.
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If the Niners wind up keeping four tailbacks on their roster this upcoming season, Hightower has a good shot at making the roster. Right now though, he’s competing for what’s likely a final spot at this position.
Yes, his Shanahan-offense experience is a bonus. But it’s possible the 49ers are merely using this as a means to teach the remaining group. Once these runners have learned the system, Hightower could become expendable.
He’ll need to show he’s more than just a mentor this offseason and training camp to stick around.
If he can, Hightower may wind up being a nice No. 3 option for Shanahan behind both Hyde and Williams in 2017.