It’s no secret that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense has been lacking a true run game. With the draft approaching and free agency still available, the Buccaneers will continue to address the offensive line and depth at running back. There may be a solution in the form of a draft-day trade.
The San Francisco 49ers made a run all the way to the Super Bowl in 2020 while being carried by a prolific run game. With the likes of Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida, and Tevin Coleman, the 49ers had the second most potent rush attack in the league. The only team to better the 49ers was the Baltimore Ravens, with Lamar Jackson accounting for 1,206 of those yards. Ultimately, the 49ers trio was arguably the best backfield in the NFL last season.
This was all accomplished WITHOUT Jerick McKinnon. McKinnon suffered an ACL injury prior to the 2018 season, and a setback before the 2019 season placed him on injured reserve both years. Subsequently, he has never taken a snap in a regular-season game for the 49ers.
Familiar foe and onetime Buccaneers offensive quality control coach (2004-2005), Shanahan likes to keep his rosters filled with a stable of running backs. While in Atlanta, the offense carried three running backs and a fullback in 2015. In 2016, the team went forward with only three running backs. Once he moved to the west coast and became the head coach of the 49ers Shanahan emphasized the backfield again with three backs and full back.
In 2018, the 49ers signed McKinnon to a four year, $30 million dollar contract. McKinnon received $18 million in guarantees, $11.7 million of which was guaranteed at signing. In September 2018, McKinnon tore his ACL during a team workout and was placed on injured reserve. Shanahan had lost his primary back and had to rely on Breida and Alfred Morris.
The 2019 season started much the same way. McKinnon found himself on injured reserve, and Shanahan had to fill his backfield. So, the 49ers brought in Coleman in March, signing him to a two-year, $10 million contract.
Entering the 2020 Season
The 49ers had Coleman, Breida, Mostert, McKinnon, and Jeff Wilson under contract. Looking at Shanahan’s past, the 49ers are most likely to carry three running backs and a fullback on their roster. Here are how things may play out.
Kyle Juszczyk is at the fullback position. He has been with the team since 2017 and carries a dead cap hit of $1.25 million this season. Shanahan will keep him on the roster. Last season they used him in 36% of the offensive snaps and was an above-average blocker for the run game and in pass protection. Used in the passing game often for a fullback, he has hauled in an average of 28 passes a season since joining the 49ers.
This shows they will maintain only three running backs on the active roster before getting back to Shanahan’s typical offensive model, assuming McKinnon is healthy.
The Running Backs
First, Jeff Wilson will be on the chopping block. With only a cap hit of $750 thousand and no dead money, he is likely to be released and signed to the 49ers practice squad. If needed, the 49ers will promote him to the active roster, much like his last two seasons.
Second, Mostert led the team in rushing last season. He was first in yards, yards per rush, first downs and touchdowns for the 49ers. He will earn $3.158 million with $666 thousand in dead money. The 49ers will not unload the most productive back they had last season unless another team over-pays in a trade for him.
Third, McKinnon just restructured his contract in March. He now has two million in dead money owed and, barring injury, will probably compete to be the primary running back for the 2020 season. Coleman has a two million dollar injury guarantee that became fully guaranteed on April first. With both these backs holding two million dollars hostage against the cap, the 49ers will keep each player for 2020. This leaves an odd man out.
Odd Man Out
Breida now has a price tag attached to his roster spot. Not only is he set for $3.259 million in 2020, none of it counts in dead cap money. He can be released and save the team that money to add to the cap situation. Second, it is not just money. The roster spot is valuable. If the 49ers are looking to expand depth elsewhere on the team, losing Breida will still leave them with three running backs on the active roster and one on the practice squad. They also maintain the fullback. They would be in a good position, moving forward to continue another playoff run.
Shop or Chop
The Breida situation has three outcomes. The 49ers will have to analyze this situation carefully before they draft as they may miss an opportunity here.
Looking to improve the roster, the 49ers may create a draft-day deal using Breida. The team can shop him in the days prior to the draft. This could cause the 49ers paring Breida with an additional late-round pick to move up into earlier rounds. Alternatively, if he is to be traded on draft day, the 49ers can send him off and gain a late-round pick. This may be attractive to teams needing to bolster their run game.
After the draft, if Breida is still on the roster there could be a trade for a 2021 pick or a player from another team. This trade’s timeline expires at the 2020 trade deadline. The 49ers may still and could afford to keep his services allowing for an insurance policy if McKinnon is not back to form or is injured again.
If there is no trade insight, the 49ers can opt to cut ties with Breida and allow him to seek employment elsewhere. The clearing of cap space and a roster spot would further provide the 49ers with the ability to sign an additional free agent to bolster any needs they feel they can’t address in the draft or after.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers are in desperate need to improve the offensive balance. The run game needs to be addressed in two manners. First, the offensive line needs to be taken care of. This protects Tom Brady and gives him a complementary run game. Second, the run game needs to improve with better depth. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will address both these things in the draft by picking an offensive tackle and eventually running back.
There could be a way to further that needed depth at running back. They could add Breida to the backfield and create their own three-headed monster of running backs. The game plan should still be to draft a running back, but the Buccaneers could afford to take one in later rounds with Breida on the roster. The Buccaneer could target a player like Lamical Perine that late, or Darrynton Evans in later rounds.
The addition of the running back would provide flexibility in the draft. This allows the offensive line to find reinforcement in the first round. The Buccaneers could add more in the second round if they so choose to. If the big four offensive tackles are off the board at the 14th pick, then the Buccaneers could take the best player available and use the second round to find offensive line help.
To gain Breida, the Buccaneers should give up only their fifth-round selection. If a bidding war were to emerge with another team during the draft, then the Buccaneers should walk away. They can seek depth elsewhere.
The Breida situation is very fluid. His stock will rise as teams cannot find the running back they may want in the draft. It could jump higher the more teams inquire about him. After the draft, if he is not on a new team, his stock dips. Once training camps open and there may be injuries, his stock will jump again.
Tampa should take a wait and see approach. The ideal situation would be if Breida finds himself a free agent. Then the Buccaneers will have to fend off other teams trying to sign him but could land him at an inexpensive price.
Pay attention to the 49ers and Breida in this year’s draft. If the 49ers don’t believe or are unsure if McKinnon is healthy he may not even depart the 49ers.
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