49ers 2020 ‘Who Is?’ series: Tevin Coleman a Kyle Shanahan favorite

Head coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers hugs Tevin Coleman #26 (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Head coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers hugs Tevin Coleman #26 (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has an affinity for Tevin Coleman, but what will the running back’s role be in 2020?

Based solely on the statistics and roster depth, the San Francisco 49ers shouldn’t have kept veteran running back Tevin Coleman entering 2020.

Coleman, who signed a two-year, $8.5 million free-agent deal in 2019, wasn’t quite the lethal weapon many thought he’d be after joining an already-crowded Niners running back room. Following an 800-yard, four-touchdown campaign with the Atlanta Falcons the year before, many thought the dual-threat tailback would be a vital piece in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense, capitalizing off their relationship together when both were in Atlanta between 2015 and 2016.

Instead, Coleman managed 544 rush yards on 137 attempts, good for 4.0 yards per carry, 180 receiving yards and a net of seven touchdowns.

And he wasn’t exactly the most consistent of San Francisco’s runners either, boasting just two games, including the postseason, in which he rushed for over 100 yards:

Tevin Coleman Regular-Season Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/12/2020.

Tevin Coleman Playoffs Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/12/2020.

On the surface, this might suggest the 49ers would consider moving on from Coleman entering 2020. Prior to April 1, cutting him would have saved over $4.8 million against the cap with zero in dead money.

With that deadline now passed, the Niners would be on the hook for $2 million in dead money if cut. Simply put, if Shanahan and the 49ers front office wanted to part ways with Coleman, they would have by now.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean Coleman’s role on offense is totally defined this season. This, thanks to the late-2019 emergence of fellow running back Raheem Mostert and the healthy return of another free-agent addition, Jerick McKinnon, who spent the last two years on injured reserve after suffering a torn ACL early in 2018.

All this makes for an interesting context for the 27-year-old Coleman, who still seems to be a Shanahan favorite despite the up-and-down production experienced last year.

Is it possible Coleman rises to the surface in 2020? Niner Noise’s annual “Who Is?” series takes a deeper look.

Why Tevin Coleman improves with the 49ers in 2020

Stats can be deceiving, and there’s a small caveat here to wonder about.

According to The Athletic’s David Lombardi, Coleman faced more eight-man defensive boxes than any other running back in the league last year, and it was Lombardi’s conclusion Shanahan was using the running back to test out opponents’ defenses in order to find mismatches and exploit weaknesses.

The complexity of Shanahan’s offense can’t be understated, and Coleman does have a mastery of it from their days together with the Falcons. So it’s possible this will be the same kind of role the veteran runner assumes again in 2020.

With more offensive weapons added during the offseason, namely rookie wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, there’s the strong possibility the 49ers’ opponents aren’t going to be able to cheat against the run early in games as they did for much of 2019. And this could open up more chances for Coleman to have better statistics than he did a year ago, particularly if the Niners bring McKinnon along slowly early in the season.

Why Tevin Coleman regresses with 49ers in 2020

Aside from those two 100-plus, multi-touchdown games Coleman had in 2019 and early in 2020, there wasn’t much to be excited about from a statistical vantage point.

Sure, Shanahan’s approach of using Coleman early in his prototypical running back-by-committee approach could ultimately limit the tailback’s numbers. But it’s just as possible Shanahan identifies another runner who can fill this void.

McKinnon would be a player to watch here, as his pass-catching prowess from his days with the Minnesota Vikings needs little introduction.

And McKinnon is worthy enough a pass blocker, too.

The negative scenario for Coleman could be twofold here, starting off with how much San Francisco wants to get McKinnon involved and potentially involving two of the team’s undrafted free agents, Salvon Ahmed and JaMycal Hasty, who could compete with both veterans for one of the few spots at the position on the roster.

Limited looks ultimately means fewer opportunities, and that could easily translate into a lackluster season.

Projected role with the 49ers in 2020

Considering the Niners didn’t part ways with Coleman early in the offseason, it’s a safe bet he’ll be on the roster in Week 1. There’s a chance San Francisco could explore trading him, which wouldn’t cost anything in dead money, would save over $4.8 million against the cap and would free up a roster spot for one of the aforementioned running backs.

Yet training camp will ultimately determine how that scenario pans out.

Still, it’s important to consider Shanahan’s loyalty to Coleman here. This should give Coleman a leg up over many of the other running backs on the roster.

As far as his role is concerned, Shanahan will likely go with the same approach he had a year ago: first, allowing his tailbacks to define their own roles in camp and the preseason, then possibly using Coleman as a starting tailback to test opposing defenses. Especially if McKinnon isn’t quite ready early on.

Next. 49ers depth chart: Who makes the cut at running back?. dark

From a statistical vantage point, the 49ers are likely looking at a very similar campaign to what Coleman produced over the majority of 2019, marked by some terrific games and ones in which he’s almost a non-factor.

For a team that frequently goes with the hot hand at the position, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.