Where do 49ers rookie running backs fit in after NFL trade deadline?
By Peter Panacy
The 49ers made some blockbuster moves before the 2022 NFL trade deadline at running back, and those shake up the running back depth chart.
Aside from the defensive line, it’s hard to think of any single position in which the San Francisco 49ers have invested more heavily than running back.
This goes beyond just using a third-round NFL Draft pick in back-to-back years on tailbacks, now-Philadelphia Eagles rusher Trey Sermon in 2021 and then Tyrion Davis-Price in 2022. Head coach Kyle Shanahan has spent big bucks on veteran running backs, too, including the 2018 free-agent pickup of Jerick McKinnon and then luring in another veteran, Tevin Coleman, back in 2019.
However, the biggest “get” of them all was the blockbuster acquisition of former Carolina Panthers All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey ahead of the 2022 NFL trade deadline.
McCaffrey’s impact was almost immediate. In his first full game (after an entire week’s worth of practice), McCaffrey took over Week 8 against the Los Angeles Rams, completing the rare trifecta of touchdowns: one rushing, one receiving and one passing.
In tandem with fellow running back Jeff Wilson Jr., the Niners’ ground game got back into expected shape.
But, just days after that victory, San Francisco shipped Wilson off to the Miami Dolphins, clearing up the depth chart a bit but probably creating a lot more uncertainty for those other rushers who are still buried behind McCaffrey.
Namely Davis-Price and undrafted rookie, Jordan Mason. Where do they fit in now?
49ers depth chart: NFL trade deadline moves benefit one rookie, hurt another
There’s another X-factor at play here when looking at the 49ers’ depth chart at running back: an inevitable return of second-year rusher Elijah Mitchell, who has been on injured reserve after suffering an MCL sprain back in Week 1.
Mitchell’s overall value is hurt by McCaffrey’s presence, as the former now has zero chance of assuming a true RB1 role outside of injuries. However, in tandem with McCaffrey, Mitchell might be more potent as a speed threat and change-of-pace tailback.
With two spots accounted for, and the Niners likely activating only three running backs on game day, what happens next?
Wilson’s trade to Miami does, at least in some ways, benefit Davis-Price, who has been banged up with an ankle injury for a good chunk of the year and has mustered a mere 16 touches for 37 yards over three games played. San Francisco grabbed Davis-Price as a tough, physical runner not unlike Wilson’s mold. So, in theory, Wilson no longer in the picture should open up more chances for Davis-Price to solidify his role in the offense.
Read More: Injured players the Niners expect back after bye week
As for Mason? Well, the fan-popular undrafted free agent isn’t necessarily going to be climbing the ranks anytime soon.
One rush for 7 yards is all that Mason has to account for himself this season, and he’s been frequent game-day inactive when the 49ers haven’t needed to use those spots for injured players. And when the Niners have called for an additional rusher, Shanahan has been more prone to call upon Coleman from the practice squad. Not Mason.
McCaffrey’s addition, along with Mitchell’s return all but ensure Mason will remain buried on the depth chart for the rest of the year, and it’ll only be through some serious injury attrition that Mason will see an uptick in use.
Perhaps 2023 will be different for him, though.