When I published a list of stat projections for players on the San Francisco 49ers Monday, the most optimistic prediction was easily the one for Carlos Hyde. The second-year player could top 1,000 yards on only 200 carries, boosting his yards per carry attempt up to 5.0. That would have placed him fifth in the NFL among running backs last season, behind only Justin Forsett, Lamar Miller, Jeremy Hill and Jamaal Charles. It would also be only the 18th time a San Francisco 49er has topped the 5.0 yards per carry mark, and the first since Frank Gore in 2006.
This is obviously a very optimistic prediction, and it would represent a significant jump from Hyde’s 2014 stats. Hyde carried the ball just 83 times last season for 333 yards, ending up with only 4.0 yards per attempt. To hit the mark I have pegged for him, Hyde would have to be a yard-per-carry more effective while more than doubling his workload. That’s a little nuts.
While there are plenty of on-field reasons to think Hyde can make a big jump in 2015, including his performances against top teams like Dallas and Seattle last season, as well as the shift to a zone-blocking system, a reality check is always in order when making a huge outlier prediction like this one. Does this prediction for Carlos Hyde have a precedent? That is, has anyone else in the history of the NFL made a similar jump, or could Hyde do something no one has ever done before?
Hyde belongs to an interesting category of running backs. Plenty of players come into the league, spend their first season as a backup, and then continue to spend their career as a backup. A smaller, but still significant portion of running backs, enter the league and get a heavy workload right away. Last year, for example, nine rookie running backs received more than 100 carries, including Cincinnati’s Hill, the New York Giants’ Andre Williams and St. Louis’ Tre Mason.
Hyde doesn’t fit into either of those categories. Hyde received less than 100 carries as a rookie, but he seems almost guaranteed to get significantly more than that in 2015. How does he compare to players who had similar career arcs?
There are 124 players who received between 50 and 100 carries in their rookie season, and then more than 100 carries in their second years. The list includes three 49ers—Hall of Famers Hugh McElhenny and Joe Perry, and AAFC standout Johnny Strzykalski. The most recent members of that group are Knile Davis last year in Kansas City, Lamar Miller the year before in Miami and Stevan Ridley the year before that in New England. You can see all of their individual numbers on the link provided, but here’s their averages, in their first two years.
|Carlos Hyde Comparables in Year Two|
|Pro Football Reference|
So, if Carlos Hyde followed the pattern of a normal player jumping to starting prominence in his second season, his projected stat line would have him somewhere between 150 and 170 carries for somewhere between 630 and 650 yards, with six to nine touchdowns. That’s not a horrible stat line; that’s about what Rashad Jennings put up in 11 games for the Giants last season, or Chris Johnson’s line with the Jets. If the 49ers end up with a full rotation with Hyde, Kendall Hunter and Reggie Bush, maybe this is a more realistic prediction. It’s nowhere near the earlier projection, however. The average running back simply does not jump up a full yard per carry between seasons.
So, let’s see if we can help that number out some. At the moment, our minimum total of second-year production is 100 rushes. That’s a significant workload, but it’s not necessarily representative of someone getting the lion’s share of the starts. Hyde is penciled in as the starting running back for the 49ers, so let’s limit the comparison to players who received 150 carries or more in their second season. That limits some of the players who became solid rotational players but not workhorse backs. That cuts our sample size down to 46 players, with the following results:
|Carlos Hyde Comparables, 150+ Carries|
|Pro Football Reference|
It’s interesting to note that the rookie numbers for this subset of players are worse than the numbers for the entire group, while their sophomore numbers are significantly better. This is due to a number of factors, but likely the most relevant is the situation these backs found themselves in. Most of these players were sitting behind a bell cow, 200+ carry running back as a rookie, and then got to take those carries over in their second season when the starter retired or otherwise moved on. That matches Hyde’s situation, so this might be a better sample of players.
If Hyde followed this pattern, his 2015 stat line would have somewhere between 200 and 240 carries for somewhere between 840 and 930 yards, with eight to 14 touchdowns. That’s just shy of my prediction, but at least it’s in a closer ballpark. It’s basically a slightly better version of Joique Bell’s 2014 season. Considering Bell was also splitting snaps with Reggie Bush, maybe that’s the sign of a really good comparison.
Still, we’re not seeing the average player get anywhere near my predicted yard per carry increase. In fact, on average, players bring their rookie level of production with them, even as their usage increases. It’s fairly clear that we shouldn’t expect anyone’s yards per carry to take a dramatic jump from the first to the second year.
However, just because the average efficiency doesn’t increase doesn’t mean that most players stick with their rookie total. Thirty-seven of the 124 players in the initial sample, or nearly 30 percent, saw their yards per attempt increase by at least half a yard, led by 49er Johnny Strzykalski jumping up 1.96 yards per carry in his second year. The exact same number of players saw their yards per attempt decrease by at least a half yard, led by Falcon Byron Hanspard plummeting 3.5 yards per carry under a larger workload. Clearly, there’s a lot of individual variation that averages out to no net gain.
Most of the big gainers came from people with poor rookie seasons (average yards per carry: 3.57), and most of the big losers came from people with great rookie seasons (average yards per carry: 5.25). People with more average yards per carry, like Hyde, generally stayed more average, but generalizations don’t cover the full story.
Chris Brown, from 2003 to 2004, jumped from 3.95 yards per carry to 4.85, going up from 56 carries to 220. Tommy Mason, from 1961 to 1962, jumped from 3.77 yards per carry to 4.43 167 carries compared to 60 the previous year. It’s uncommon, but it happens. For Hyde to match the numbers suggested, he’d have to be on the cutting edge of players in similar situations, but it’s a jump that’s happened before. If you believe Hyde’s a special player, there are precedents to boosting as high as my projection, but they are few and far between.
To round out this projection, here are four recent players—and one former 49er—who saw both their carries and yards per attempt jump from between their first two years, in order to give better context to some of the possibilities for Hyde’s upcoming season.
Chris Brown, Tennessee Titans
2003: 56 carries, 221 yards, 3.95 yards per attempt, zero touchdowns
2004: 220 carries; 1,067 yards, 4.85 yards per attempt, six touchdowns
Chris Brown is the single best comparison for Carlos Hyde fans hoping to see a huge burst. Brown, a third-round pick out of Colorado, spent the 2003 season sitting behind Oilers and Titans legend Eddie George, who carried most of the workload but simply wasn’t effective anymore at age 30.
After not accepting a pay cut due to his lack of production and injury history, George was cut from the team, opening the starting spot for Brown.
Brown was third in the NFL in yards per carry in 2004, though he missed five games with ankle injuries which ended up slowing down his career. Brown was actually on pace for over 1,500 yards that season before he went down with an injury, and he ended up with 97 yards per game.
That’s the ideal model for Carlos Hyde. Hyde had similar—even slightly better—yards per carry and workload numbers as a rookie. Hyde also is replacing a franchise legend in the starting lineup.
Hyde is working with a rushing quarterback, like Brown and Steve McNair. It’s the ideal model for a breakout season for Hyde, and proof that big jumps can happen when a player is given a chance.
Toby Gerhart, Minnesota Vikings
2010: 81 carries, 322 yards, 3.98 yards per attempt, one touchdown
2011: 109 carries, 531 yards, 4.87 yards per attempt, one touchdown
Spiller and Gerhart’s gains are more typical for backs with Hyde’s rookie workload.
Both backs simply earned a larger share of a platoon in their second years. Spiller became a more equal partner with Fred Jackson, while Gerhart replaced Adrian Peterson when he tore his ACL and MCL.
Both of these carry totals would be a disappointment for Hyde in this year, because it would mean either Bush or Hunter had outplayed him significantly, getting the lion’s share of the carries. While both players saw their efficiency increase, neither could crack a starting spot.
Some of that, of course, can be excused because their previous starter was still on the team, while Hyde’s path to the starting spot is unimpeded. Indeed, Spiller made the Pro Bowl in his third season, rushing for over 1,200 yards as he took over the starting role from the oft-injured Jackson.
This would likely have been the plan had Gore signed one more contract with the 49ers—Gore and Hyde splitting the carries somewhat this season, with Hyde taking over in the third year. Spiller showed the sort of improvement Hyde needs, so he’s still a decent comparison; he just didn’t get the opportunities until the year after.
Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
2008: 67 carries, 357 yards, 5.33 yards per carry, zero touchdowns
2009: 190 carries; 1,120 yards, 5.89 yards per carry, seven touchdowns
Jamaal Charles isn’t a perfect match for Hyde because of the disparity in rookie season numbers—Charles was much more effective on a per-play basis than Hyde was as a rookie. It was, then, perhaps more likely that Charles would explode in year two than it is for Hyde.
Like Hyde, though, Charles sat behind an established starter, Larry Johnson, in his rookie season. Johnson struggled at the beginning of 2009, and then was suspended and later cut for some inappropriate comments, belittling his head coach and making a homophobic slur. Charles took advantage of his opportunity, leading the NFL in yards per carry and then absolutely exploding into the superstar he is today the next season.
Hoping Hyde becomes the next Jamaal Charles is probably a bit unrealistic in 2015. They can make the same sort of jump from the first to second year, but Charles started a full yard-and-a-quarter better per carry than Hyde.
Hyde has potential; Charles was obviously a special player from Day 1. Charles has the sixth-highest yards per carry of anyone in the sample, and four of the players ahead of them played in the much softer AAFC and not the NFL.
The only two players above him who saw their yards per carry increase at all were both AAFC players, as well. In other words, players as good as Charles generally don’t sit in their rookie years in the NFL. Hyde can see the same kind of increase, but pump the brakes on directly comparing them.
Johnny Strzykalski, San Francisco 49ers
1946: 79 carries, 346 yards, 4.38 yards per carry, two touchdowns
1947: 143 carries, 906 yards, 6.34 yards per carry, five touchdowns
Strzykalski isn’t a good comparison for Carlos Hyde for a number of reasons, but he has the greatest single-year increase in yards per carry in the sample and is a former 49er, so he's mentioned anyway.
The 49ers were clearly the second-best team in the history of the AAFC, just behind the Cleveland Browns, and their power running game was the reason why. They ran all over everyone, and before it was with future Hall of Famer Joe Perry, it was with Johnny Strike. Strzykalski paired with fullback Norm Standlee for his first two seasons, and his hard-headed running style made him a force to be reckoned with.
Joe Perry arrived the next season, and Strzykalski converted to more of a lead blocker for the future Hall of Famer. It was a different era of football—players could keep running after getting knocked down, they played both offense and defense with Strzykalski playing both ways, pulling in eight interceptions in his AAFC career. Imagine Hyde filling in not only for the departed Frank Gore, but also for Chris Culliver, as well.
Unlike a lot of the early AAFC stars, Strzykalski continued to have success in the NFL, making the Pro Bowl in 1950 before retiring in 1952.
Hyde’s not likely to duplicate the gains of Johnny Stryzkalski. He’s not likely to be as effective as Jamaal Charles was. He’s not likely to have as few carries as C.J. Spiller or Toby Gerhart had. But Chris Brown’s case shows that there’s a chance for Hyde to really burst onto the scene in 2015. Projecting him to go over 1,000 yards and average five yards a carry may be on the extreme end, but it’s certainly not out of the question.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.