49ers roster 2021: Trey Sermon a rookie breakout candidate

Ohio State Buckeyes running back Trey Sermon (8) Mandatory Credit: Imagn Images
Ohio State Buckeyes running back Trey Sermon (8) Mandatory Credit: Imagn Images /

While the 49ers have long employed running back platoons, rookie Trey Sermon could be the bell cow Kyle Shanahan needs in 2021.

There might have been some skepticism about the San Francisco 49ers trading up in Round 3 of the 2021 NFL Draft to grab Ohio State running back Trey Sermon, who didn’t necessarily have the speed head coach Kyle Shanahan coveted.

And considering the Niners haven’t traditionally used high-end draft picks on running backs and also had other areas of need, some felt this was a bit of a wasted pick.

Well, maybe those assessments wind up proving to be wrong.

Selected at No. 88 overall, the 6-foot-0, 215-pound Sermon could end up being a key linchpin in Shanahan’s offense right out of the gate, especially in the wake of San Francisco bidding farewell to veteran rushers like Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon during the offseason, and particularly after losing fellow running back Jeff Wilson Jr. to a meniscus tear.

Trey Sermon Rushing & Receiving Table
*2017OklahomaBig 12FRRB131217446.15161398.721378836.47
*2018OklahomaBig 12SORB141649475.8131218115.1017611286.413
*2019OklahomaBig 12JRRB10543857.148718.91624567.45
*2020Ohio StateBig TenSRRB81168707.5412957.901289657.54
Ohio State1168707.5412957.901289657.54

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference
Generated 7/13/2021.

The 49ers are likely to pair Sermon heavily with their presumed top running back on the roster, Raheem Mostert. But even Mostert carries injury concerns and hasn’t generally been seen as a ball-carrier who can tote the rock 20-plus times per game.

If Sermon puts his stamp on things right out of the gate, he could potentially wind up being a massive part of the Niners offense this season.

Let’s explore why.

Why Trey Sermon catches fire with 49ers in year one

Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner have pretty exclusive criteria for evaluating running backs, and Sermon was a top target. While there have been misses, these two have been essential in developing less-heralded players like Mostert and Wilson.

Sermon, who came up big for Ohio State’s NCAA playoff games last year before suffering an injury ahead of the CFB championship against Alabama, is viewed as a natural fit in zone-style offenses, using his ability to get to the outside and create chunk gains when getting into space.

While Sermon might not be as effective in between the tackles, he certainly creates space for himself and has the cutback ability to elude one-off tacklers in the open field.

On top of that, Sermon also made a note for himself picking up yards after the catch on his 48 career receptions at the college level, fitting into the mold of being another one of San Francisco’s “YAC Bros.” right out of the gate.

If Sermon can assume that kind of role again heading into 2021, there are plenty of reasons why he emerges as a serious weapon his rookie year.

Why Trey Sermon scuffles with 49ers in 2021

The speed factor is a bit of a question, as he ran a 4.58 40-yard time during his pro day. And while his game tape seemed to indicate a better on-field speed, it’s fair to wonder just how well he’ll handle getting to the outside against stronger, faster NFL-level competition.

Those open-field tackles won’t be quite as easy to break.

On top of that, Sermon has yet to develop the adequate vision to run between the tackles, which will probably limit him early on to outside-only runs. So, when defenses see Sermon in the backfield, linebackers and safeties will likely cheat outside of the tackle box.

This might take some coaching, relegating Sermon to more of a situational tool than a regularly featured rusher early in his career.

Projected role, impact with 49ers

Mostert was dealing with a minor knee injury during organized team activities, which led to Sermon getting a lot of first-team work during those practices. By all accounts, Sermon handled himself exceptionally well, and that spells a good future heading into training camp.

Shanahan is still likely to deploy a running back platoon in 2021, though, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see Sermon used as a complementary piece to Mostert, the latter being more of a home-run threat.

However, in 2019 and at times in 2020, Shanahan would often save Mostert for the second half of games, letting Coleman get the bulk of first-half carries before deploying the faster Mostert against worn-out defenses.

Perhaps Coleman’s former duty is the role Shanahan envisions for Sermon.

Related Story: Why Trey Sermon takes over as 49ers starting running back in 2021

But Mostert, who missed eight games with various injuries last year, might see a drop in touches, both due to the need to keep him fresh and in light of the possibility Sermon simply breaks out and experiences early success.

And with Mostert a free agent in 2022, it’s highly possible the 49ers are looking to make Sermon their primary ground-attack weapon for the long run anyway.

Especially if he thrives right out of the gate, and the signs suggest he will.

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