49ers RB Jeff Wilson in a hot fight for roster spot in 2020

Jeff Wilson #30 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Jeff Wilson #30 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images) /

49ers running back Jeff Wilson played a small but vital role in 2019, yet he still faces a tough road to make the 53-man roster in 2020.

Running back Jeff Wilson probably isn’t the first name thought of when considering San Francisco 49ers tailbacks on the offseason roster. That honor would likely go to Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman or perhaps even Jerick McKinnon.

And last year, Wilson still found himself fourth in the pecking order behind two of those aforementioned names, along with the recently traded Matt Breida. Still, head coach Kyle Shanahan’s decision to keep four running backs on the 53-man roster in 2019 certainly worked to Wilson’s benefit, especially as the Niners navigated a year in which multiple ball carriers found themselves banged up.

Wilson, the 2018 undrafted free-agent pickup out of North Texas, still managed to provide a sizable impact for Shanahan and Co. despite appearing in only 10 games last season and being used relatively sparingly:

Jeff Wilson Rushing & Receiving Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/11/2020.

For starters, Wilson emerged as something of a goal-line back, picking up a career-best four touchdowns on the ground.

But nothing was as memorable as his game-winning touchdown reception against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 11 last year:

This performance, along with Wilson cutting down on the fumbles that plagued him his rookie season, certainly increased his stock value heading into an uncertain 2020. Less-heralded tailbacks always face a more difficult road making the 53-man roster each and every year, and this season won’t be any different.

Especially considering McKinnon’s return from a two-year injury absence paired with the Niners grabbing two more undrafted runners this year, Washington’s Salvon Ahmed and Baylor’s JaMycal Hasty.

For now, Wilson has the leg up on the two, having already experienced Shanahan’s offense, while the rookies haven’t benefited from spring workouts, minicamps and organized team activities.

So, if Wilson is to return to San Francisco this season, what should fans expect from him and how can he improve?

Niner Noise takes a deeper look.

Why Jeff Wilson improves with 49ers in 2020

The short-yardage back is something the Niners could certainly use heading into this season, and Wilson’s 6-foot-0, 213-pound frame is built for shorter, tougher yards along the goal line.

But another facet to consider is his Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, which measures the value of a given play against an average runner. Mostert’s was a league-high 26.8 percent, while Wilson was No. 2 on the Niners roster with 20.3 percent.

Factoring in Coleman’s minus-15.3 percent, you get the idea Wilson made the most of his opportunities when given the chance.

Yet perhaps the biggest improvement came from Wilson not fumbling, which was a key mark against him back in 2018. If this is no longer a major concern entering this season, it’ll certainly put him in a better position to secure a bona fide role for Shanahan.

Why Jeff Wilson regresses with 49ers in 2020

Wilson’s short-area abilities are budding and noteworthy to watch. But that’s also something Hasty flashed during his collegiate years.

Hasty, much smaller at 5-foot-8 and 205 pounds, boasts a lower frame and is a tough tackle, too. Plus Hasty offers up a bit more in the receiving game, potentially earning him some training camp favor and looks over Wilson. But one of the key differences possibly separating Hasty and Wilson is the latter’s relative inability to break tackles. Last year, per Pro Football Focus, Wilson broke only one and averaged just 2.52 yards after first contact.

That’s almost the equivalent of simply going to the ground after being touched.

If Wilson can’t showcase that ability during camp, it’ll essentially be a tossup between him and Hasty.

Chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster

A crowded backfield automatically puts Wilson on the roster bubble, but it’s a fairly fluid situation. Wilson could go anywhere from being a featured member of the offense, particularly in goal-line situations, to being off of it altogether.

Part of the context is his current contract, as he’s set to earn up to $750,000 for his services in 2020, albeit with zero in dead money if waived. Should he stay on San Francisco’s roster this season, he’ll be a restricted free agent in 2021, and that opens up a discussion for another time.

What’s working in Wilson’s favor is the improvements made between years one and two, namely cutting down on fumbles and the ability to spark the passing game in key situations. His usage was minor, yes. But having two years’ experience working under Shanahan is something that’ll help his chances, particularly with Ahmed and Hasty not being able to participate in spring workouts.

But that only goes so far, putting an increased sense of urgency in Wilson’s ability to showcase even more value to the Niners in training camp.

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Wilson might not be a key part of the running back rotation in San Francisco, but he could certainly find himself a niche role if he outperforms his competition this summer.