Carlos Hyde Could Be the 2015 NFL Season's Breakout Star Running Back

Dan Hope@Dan_HopeContributor IIIJuly 20, 2015

USA Today

Of all the players the San Francisco 49ers lost to free agency or retirements this offseason, running back Frank Gore might be the easiest to replace. While Gore had a fantastic 10-year run in San Francisco, in which he ran for 11,073 yards and 64 touchdowns, the 49ers already have a potential star ready to be his successor in Carlos Hyde.

Selected by the 49ers with the No. 57 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft, Hyde did not see extensive playing time as a rookie. Over the course of 14 regular-season games played last year, Hyde was on the field for just 31.5 percent of the 49ers' snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. He finished the year with just 95 total offensive touches: 83 carries for 333 yards and four touchdowns, plus 12 receptions for 68 yards.

That should change in 2015.

The 49ers would not have traded up to draft Hyde if they did not believe he could be a feature back once Gore departed the team. With Gore now playing for the Indianapolis Colts, Hyde should get a majority of the 49ers' rushing attempts this season.

Assuming that Hyde stays healthy and that the 49ers continue to use the "bell cow" approach to the running back position as they did with Gore, Hyde should go well upward of 200 carries in his sophomore year and have a shot to emerge as one of the best running backs in the NFL.

In limited action last season, and dating back to his collegiate years at Ohio State, Hyde has exhibited a combination of power, elusiveness and burst that is characteristic of a great running back.

At 6'0" and 235 pounds, Hyde is best known for being a bruising bowling ball between the tackles. A hard-charging runner who has prodigious size and does not shy away from contact, Hyde routinely breaks arm-tackle attempts and almost always falls forward at the end of runs.

Nov 23, 2014; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers running back Carlos Hyde (28) runs for a touchdown against the Washington Redskins in the fourth quarter at Levi's Stadium. The 49ers defeated the Redskins 17-13. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

According to Pro Football Focus' Matt Claassen, who recently produced a number of articles detailing advanced statistics for NFL running backs from the 2014 season (h/t David Fucillo of Niners Nation), Hyde forced 25 missed tackles within his 83 rushing attempts last season, good for the second-best rate of attempts per missed tackle behind only Seattle Seahawks superstar Marshawn Lynch.

Although that is largely because of Hyde's ability to run through defenders—he tied for fifth among NFL running backs with an average of 2.8 yards after contact per attempt last season—he also has surprising agility for a man of his size. While Hyde might never be mistaken for a scatback, he does exhibit the elusiveness to stop his feet and juke away from defenders in space.

Hyde might never be a regular source of long-yardage plays—he had only one run of more than 15 yards last season and does not have much breakaway speed.

He is, however, very consistent in gaining at least a few yards out of the backfield. According to another article by Claassen, Hyde was stopped for two yards or less on just 32 of his 83 carries in 2014, the seventh-best percentage (38.6) among the 62 running backs who had at least 70 rushing attempts in the NFL last season.

In an interesting contrast from the last statistic, Hyde was hit behind the line of scrimmage on 24 of his 83 rushing attempts last season, a rate of 28.9 percent that was highest among the same 62 running backs, also according to Claassen.

One would not expect that the running back who was hit in the backfield more than any other would also be one of the most consistent in getting positive yardage. Looking at the two statistics in coordination with one another, however, helps illustrate what Hyde is already doing at an elite level and what he needs to do better in 2015.

Although the two statistics are far from mutually exclusive—most of the 24 runs on which he was hit behind the line of scrimmage were among the runs on which he failed to gain more than two yards—the fact that he was able to get out of the backfield so regularly while also being frequently hit in it is a testament to Hyde's ability to take on contact even before he has had an opportunity to accelerate into a high gear and keep his feet moving to continue the play.

One example of Hyde turning a negative play into a positive play came in Week 12 of last season against the Washington Redskins. Hit more than two yards behind the line of scrimmage by Redskins edge defender Ryan Kerrigan, Hyde managed to bounce off Kerrigan, use his hand to push off and cut back across defensive lineman Jason Hatcher and then barge forward for a five-yard gain.

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

Of course, the fact that Hyde was hit behind the line of scrimmage as frequently as he was—especially given that Gore was hit in the backfield 10 percent less often than Hyde last season, according to Claassen—is also indicative of Hyde having trouble getting going out of the blocks.

A lack of burst does not appear to be the culprit for Hyde in that regard; to the contrary, Hyde's burst often stands out on his positive plays, as he is able to accelerate quickly—despite his size and limited top speed—once he gets into a lane.

The greatest flaw that was apparent in Hyde's game as a rookie—leading him to run into defenders before gaining positive yardage—is that he needed to be more aware and make more active decisions in attacking running lanes.

As he takes handoffs to start his runs, Hyde too often appears to have tunnel vision, predetermining the direction of his carries and being slow to recognize open holes available to him. There were numerous examples from his time on the field in 2014 in which Hyde ran into blockers and/or defenders, stalling his progress, when he could have hit a free gap by moving toward one more quickly.

One such example came in Week 5 against the Kansas City Chiefs. As you can see in the following screenshots, Hyde could have cut his run back into one of multiple open lanes but instead ran straight into a glut of bodies on the left side and was stopped at the line of scrimmage for a gain of only one.

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

Because of that, Hyde averaged just 1.2 yards before contact in 2014, the sixth-lowest average among qualifying running backs, per Claassen. Gore, by comparison, had 2.0 yards before contact per carry, even though he is no speed demon and was running behind the same offensive line.

The good news for the 49ers (and Hyde's fantasy football owners) is that with a year of NFL experience under his belt, as well as the opportunity to see consistent carries and get into rhythm, Hyde should develop a better feel for the field in 2015. If he can do that, he has all the tools to become one of the most consistently productive runners in the league.

There is more to being a great running back than being a great runner, but that shouldn't be a problem for Hyde, who has demonstrated both for the Buckeyes and when he has had opportunities for the 49ers that he can contribute to the offense and the team in other capacities.

While Hyde is somewhat limited athletically as a receiving threat, he has shown to be a sure-handed pass-catcher. He's not going to burn defenses on deep routes, but his ability to make defenders miss with both strength and lateral quickness gives him the potential to be dangerous with the ball in space.

That might not be enough to keep him on the field in passing situations—it's likely that offseason free-agent signee Reggie Bush will seize some of Hyde's third-down work—but it helps Hyde's cause that he is also a solid blocker. Although he had his ups and downs in that area as a rookie, Hyde's size and strength are big assets in enabling him to pick up blitzes to keep defenders off the quarterback and/or enable 49ers signal-caller Colin Kaepernick to tuck the ball and run.

While Hyde can make it so the loss of Gore does not affect the 49ers in 2015, some of the 49ers' other losses could affect Hyde. Specifically, the free-agency departure of left guard Mike Iupati and the retirement of right tackle Anthony Davis have weakened the offensive line in front of Hyde, which only increases the importance of Hyde exhibiting better vision to start his runs this upcoming season.

All in all, though, the 2015 season projects as though it should be a highly productive one for Hyde, so long as he avoids injuries like the one to his ankle that ended his rookie year two games early.

In an offense that had the ninth-most rushing attempts in the NFL last year, and one that will likely remain run-heavy if Kaepernick continues to be an inconsistent passer, Hyde should see a large number of carries, even with Bush spelling him situationally.

If Hyde can break off a few more big plays this season while continuing to break tackles with high frequency, a season of 1,000-plus rushing yards should be well within his reach.

NFL.com's Around the NFL team, which selected Hyde as one of 20 players expected to make the leap to stardom in 2015, agrees that Hyde should take advantage of the opportunity vacated by Gore and have a breakout season this year.

"The 49ers' new offense plans to add more stretch zone concepts into the rushing attack this season," Kevin Patra of NFL.com wrote. "Those sprinkles will be a boon for Hyde, who performed well in that type of scheme in college. After dropping weight this offseason, he should be able to hit those wide runs more cleanly."

Not everyone agrees that Hyde is the running back most primed for a breakout 2015 season. Bleacher Report's Chris Simms said Joseph Randle, set to be the new feature back behind an elite Dallas Cowboys offensive line, will end up taking the biggest step forward among NFL running backs this year.

Because there is still a degree of uncertainty in regards to what numbers Hyde will be able to post as a No. 1 running back, the man who calls himself "El Guapo" could be a risky selection early in fantasy football drafts this year.

That said, he could also prove to be a steal if he plays up to his potential.

Ultimately, it would be a big surprise if Hyde fails to emerge as an upper-echelon running back in the league this season. Even if the 49ers have a down year as they work to rebuild under first-year head coach Jim Tomsula, Hyde should still be able to thrive individually as he gets his chance atop an NFL depth chart.

Basic statistics courtesy of NFL.com and advanced statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.

Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.


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