Running back Carlos Hyde is a ‘what could have been’ story for the 49ers

SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 06: Carlos Hyde #28 of the San Francisco 49ers warms up prior to their NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi's Stadium on October 6, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 06: Carlos Hyde #28 of the San Francisco 49ers warms up prior to their NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi's Stadium on October 6, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

Running back Carlos Hyde leaves the San Francisco 49ers to the Cleveland Browns via NFL free agency, closing the door on an intriguing “what could have been” story for the Niners.

One more chapter on the pre-Kyle Shanahan/John Lynch San Francisco 49ers closed Wednesday, as news broke of running back Carlos Hyde departing the Niners for the Cleveland Browns on the official opening day of 2018 NFL free agency.

News of the transition was first reported by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.

The 49ers are replacing Hyde with former Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon — a much better scheme fit for Shanahan’s offense.

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And that writes the epitaph for Hyde in red and gold, in what’s an epitome of a “what could have been” storyline for San Francisco.

Let’s rewind back to 2014. The Niners picked up Hyde in Round 2, No. 57 overall, of that year’s NFL Draft out of Ohio State. The prolific power runner was easily viewed as heir apparent to the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, Frank Gore, who was poised to leave the organization a year later.

The move made all the sense in the world. Then-head coach Jim Harbaugh and his offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, had one of the best smashmouth running attacks in the NFL. Hyde was going to pick up where Gore left off.

At least that was the plan.

Four years later, we can look back at Hyde’s career and think it good. Not great, but good:

Carlos Hyde Rushing & Receiving Table

Provided by View Original Table
Generated 3/14/2018.

Hyde came close to reaching that 1,000-yard rushing plateau in a season twice — the benchmark most starting runners aim to reach on a yearly basis.

One word: close.

49ers Derailed Carlos Hyde’s Potential with Poor Scheme Fits, Personnel

2015 — the year in which everything fell apart for San Francisco.

Harbaugh was gone, and so was his power-run offense. So was a huge crop of the talent that made the Niners a perennial Super Bowl contender.

Early on, signs pointed to the 49ers being OK. At least in Week 1 that year. After all, who could forget Hyde’s 168-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football?

Or this:

But then the injuries came. And who knows what the offensive game plan or scheme was under one-and-done head coach Jim Tomsula either.

Even the 2016 switch to also-one-and-done head coach Chip Kelly, who ran an inside-zone rushing attack, didn’t help Hyde thrive much either. He was more of a power back, as Sportsnaut’s Vincent Frank pointed out:

It’s a classic case of a player not fitting the scheme. Both the 49ers and former general manager Trent Baalke were guilty of making such roster/front office transactions during Hyde’s tenure.

And it hurt his production.

Also hurting his production was the dramatic decline of San Francisco’s offensive line. This unit went from being among the best in 2013 and 2014 to ranking dead last in run support during 2015, according to Football Outsiders. 2016 wasn’t any better either.

Fourth and Nine’s Dylan DeSimone described how this affected Hyde:

"Hyde gets a bad rap due to injuries and ultimately a lack of thousand-yard seasons. …The 49ers’ back is actually doing much, much more than meets the eye. Once he’s handed the ball, he first has to spin, juke or break out of a tackle behind the line of scrimmage before making his read and charging up field. For his entire pro career to date, he’s had to work around the offensive line, rather than jive with it.The only positive is that it’s resulted in him building a callous and reputation as a tough tackle."

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New 49ers Regime Bids Farewell to Carlos Hyde

The 49ers met with Hyde’s agent at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine — a year after he led the team in all-purpose yards (1,288).

Ultimately, though, Hyde was never going to be a scheme fit. Shanahan’s outside zone isn’t indicative of Hyde’s skill set. And neither is the fact Hyde isn’t known to be a prolific pass catcher. Despite a career high in receptions last year (59), he also led the NFL in dropped passes by a running back (six).

No, San Francisco was never going to bring Hyde back.

Hyde could have had one of those Pro Bowl-worthy careers with the Niners had it not been for the slew of coaching changes between 2015 and 2017. And if a once-vaunted O-line maintained some sort of continuity, things could have been different too.

But they weren’t.

Next: How 2018 free-agent quarterback landscape affects 49ers

Both parties move on. And all that’s left is to look back at Hyde’s tenure with the 49ers while wondering what kind of career he might have had if the landscape had been vastly different.