SF 49ers RB Jeff Wilson
To be honest, I did not understand the fascination with running back Jeff Wilson. I saw his performances in the preseason, and although they were impressive, they were also in the preseason.
Given the speed of runners like Raheem Mostert, the security of Tevin Coleman, and the return of Jerick McKinnon, not to mention the allure of rookie rusher JaMycal Hasty on the practice squad, I expected nothing out of Wilson and was expecting him to be off the team shortly.
However, Wilson got his opportunity against the New England Patriots and made the most of it, putting in over 150 yards and a handful of touchdowns. It was a surprisingly dominant performance by the fourth running back on the depth chart at the time, and it showed a few things about Wilson that are important.
For starters, it showed a severe contrast between him and the other rushers on the team. Whereas Mostert has straight-line speed and both Coleman and McKinnon have pass-catching upside, Wilson is an old-school battering ram. George Kittle spoke after that Patriots game about a dark place Wilson goes to before he plays that fuels his aggressive play, and he certainly runs like it.
That bowl-you-over hardnosed running attack is a large change of pace for the SF 49ers compared to the other runners, and it gives Wilson something unique that differentiates him.
Wilson also showed similarities to the other backs. Like Mostert, he doesn’t wait for a play to develop and try to slowly discern a hole to hit. He sees the crease and runs for it. While that’s not always optimal, and players like Hasty can provide surprise yards by making something out of nothing, it is important in terms of keeping the offense moving and showing decisiveness. Like McKinnon and Coleman, though, Wilson has surprisingly good hands and has proved adept at catching passes.
The two factors working against Wilson is his fumbling issues, a situation that plagued Mostert as well before he worked through them and managed to win back Kyle Shanahan’s favor, and the plethora of backs on the roster. Even though it’s likely both McKinnon and Coleman do not return next year, Hasty, who is currently on injured reserve, flashed in his snaps as well and may in fact be in consideration for extensive playing time. Mostert will always if healthy, command a healthy share of running back snaps, and given the talent in the draft and Shanahan’s ability to select running backs from the scrap heap, a rookie may come in and compete for snaps.
But the uniqueness of Wilson’s game compared to his contemporaries gives him confidence that he will be a part of the game plan, and when he is part of the game plan, he produces.
His shining may not be a 1,000-yard season or a Pro Bowl performance, but he looks to be a vital part of a potent running back committee in the near future.