San Francisco 49ers: How Many Carries Will Carlos Hyde Get in 2014?

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San Francisco 49ers: How Many Carries Will Carlos Hyde Get in 2014?
Jeff Lewis/Associated Press

How many carries will Carlos Hyde see in his rookie season?

It’s been a long time since anyone but Frank Gore carried the workload for the 49ers.  He’s been the team’s leading rusher every season since 2005, and excluding when he missed five games in 2010, Gore’s had more than 65 percent of the running back carries since 2006.

Frank Gore and the 49ers' Running Backs
Year Gore's Carries Percent Next-highest back Carries
2005 127 41.5% Kevan Barlow 176
2006 312 99.4% Moran Norris 2
2007 260 97.4% Moran Norris 7
2008 240 75.9% DeShaun Foster 76
2009 229 69.6% Glen Coffee 83
2010 203 57.5% Brian Westbrook 77
2011 282 65.6% Kendall Hunter 112
2012 258 66.5% Kendall Hunter 72
2013 276 68.8% Kendall Hunter 78

Pro-Football-Reference.com

From 2006 through 2013, the 49ers used six picks on running backs, most notably taking Glen Coffee in 2009 and LaMichael James in 2012.  They used a combined 655.8 points of value, according to Draftek's classic draft-value chart, or about the equivalent of the 28th overall pick.

The results?  Only Kendall Hunter has even had 100 carries in a single season.  They’ve combined for 532 carries for 2,070 yards and 16 touchdowns and been unable to take any significant chunk of the carries away from Gore when he’s been healthy.

Gore’s top replacement running back has been getting somewhere between 70 and 85 carries a season since 2008, so the simplest way to predict Hyde’s total is to assume he’ll follow in those footsteps and get about 80 carries, more or less.

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press
Hyde is the earliest running back picked by the 49ers since the 1990s.

It’s not quite that simple, however.  Hyde was the 57th overall pick, the earliest the 49ers have taken a running back since the early 1990s, when they took Dexter Carter, Ricky Williams and Amp Lee in consecutive years.  There’re more expectations for Hyde than there were for Hunter, for example.

Secondly, Gore turned 31 years old in May, and he has to start slowing down at some point.  Although he’s bucked all historical aging trends to this point in his career, there will come a day when Gore is unable to carry the load for the team, and it’s closer now than it was when Coffee or James were drafted.  Hyde may end up being the right back at the right time to take carries away from Gore.

One way to look at Hyde’s potential numbers as a rookie is to see how other players, drafted in roughly the same area, performed in their rookie season.

From the merger in 1970 through 2013, 57 running backs were drafted between the 52nd and 62nd overall pick, right in Hyde’s general range. 

Several of these rookies came in and contributed right away—last year, Eddie Lacy’s 284 carries ranked second-most all time in this category, right behind Rueben Mayes’ 286 in 1986.  Others sat on the bench for nearly the entire season, with 2011 seeing Mikel Leshoure get no carries at all for the Detroit Lions.

The average running back in the sample had 73 carries for 292 yards, though those numbers are somewhat inflated by players such as Lacy and Mayes.  That’s not miles away from the average backup for Gore, so again, that seems to confirm the predictions of high double-digit carries.

Matt Ludtke/Associated Press
Eddie Lacy had plenty of opportunities in Green Bay last year.

Not all second-round picks come into the same situation, however. 

In 2013, Lacy was replacing a running-back-by-committee approach—Green Bay’s leading rusher in 2012 was Alex Green, with only 135 carries.  In 2011, Leshoure was supposed to sit behind Jahvid Best, who had just been a first-round pick the year before.  There would, in theory, be less carries available for Leshoure than there were for Lacy.

This is something we can quantify.  We can take a look at the leading rushers before each player was drafted and try to take a look at three factors that could affect a running back’s opportunities: the age of the leading rusher the year before, the number of carries that running back had and how efficient those carries were, on a yards-per-attempt basis.   

In theory, the younger, more used and more efficient a back is, the less likely he is to be replaced by a draft pick.  Older, less efficient backs in a committee are more likely to find themselves riding the pine the next season.

Gore is significantly older than the average back these draft choices are replacing. 

The average incumbent back was only 26 years old, meaning Gore’s well out in front.  In fact, at age 31, Gore’s older than all but two incumbents: Marcus Allen with the 1994 Kansas City Chiefs and Willis McGahee, who was replaced by Montee Ball on the 2013 Denver Broncos.  That bodes well for Hyde getting more carries than average.

On the other hand, Gore’s been carrying a greater workload and doing more with it than the average incumbent back in the sample.  Gore’s 276 carries in 2013 is more than 60 more than the average back had, and his 4.1 yards per carry is slightly above the average of 4.08, as well. 

In short, the 49ers have been satisfied with one running back up until this point, and Gore hasn’t been slowed down by the volume of carries he’s had.  That bodes poorly for Hyde getting more carries than average.

Mike Roemer/Associated Press
When will Frank Gore slow down?

The question, then, is which is more important: the fact that Gore will be one of the oldest backs in the league in 2014 or the fact that he’s been so good and productive carrying the ball up to this point?

I think in the end, it’s going to be the age that wins out, as it so often is in the NFL.  This is Gore’s last season under contract, so unlike when the team drafted Coffee or James, Hyde was taken specifically with the knowledge that Gore will need to be replaced in the next season or two.  Even if Gore does contribute in 2014, what are the odds he can still play in 2015?  In 2016?

With that in mind, the team has to get Hyde—or Marcus Lattimore or Hunter or someone—ready to take over the reins as the "bell cow" back.  That means giving that player a fair share of the carries as he works his way into the regular lineup.

With all that in mind, I think it’s quite easily possible that Hyde becomes only the second non-Gore back to break 100 carries since 2006. 

To get to the 112 carries that Hunter put up in 2011 would require Hyde to have seven carries a game, and that’s not out of the question at all.  The 49ers gave the ball to their running backs 408 times last season or just over 25 carries a game.  I could see Hyde taking a quarter of those carries if he shows the same power as he did at Ohio State.

Honestly, the question I think will be how many carries go neither to Gore or Hyde but to Hunter, Lattimore and James.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say the four backups will have more carries as a unit than Gore will, for the first time since 2005—Gore will still have more carries than any other back, but he won’t have half the total workload.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Neither Hunter (left) nor Gore will give up their carries without a fight.

The best-case scenario for Hyde is showing early on that he’s the star rusher and future feature back.  If he entirely outshines the rest of the roster, I could see him getting as far as 230 carries, just by his lonesome.  That’s improbable, thanks to Hunter's consistency, Lattimore's potential and James' shiftiness, but it’s not entirely out of the question.

The worst-case scenario for Hyde sees him struggle to pick up the 49ers’ system, especially in pass protection.  Lattimore ends up fully recovered from his horrific knee injury, and Hunter’s experience keeps him as the first back off the bench.  In that case, I could see Hyde dropping down to around 40 carries, mostly in goal-line situations and when running the clock out at the end of games.

If I were in charge of a Vegas sportsbook, I’d put the over/under at about 90 carries for Hyde, and I’d be tempted to take the over.  Hyde’s got a lot of potential, and one day, he should be the featured back in San Francisco’s offense.

 

Stats are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, unless noted otherwise. 

Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers.  Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.

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