The San Francisco 49ers are not hanging around. After finding a quarterback last year in Jimmy Garoppolo they signed him to the biggest contract in NFL history. After hearing Bay Area native and former-archrival Richard Sherman was released they quickly handed him a lucrative deal to bring his All-Pro talents to Levi’s Stadium.
With free agency opening on Wednesday and still $64 million under the cap, the 49ers have a lot business to get to.
One of the major points they need to address is the running back position. Long the home of Carlos Hyde, the most experienced back currently under contract for 2018 is Matt Breida, an undrafted rookie last year who took 105 carries last season.
With all that cap space the 49ers could sign any back they wanted, but there is really only one they should focus their efforts on; Dion Lewis.
The versatile weapon
Lewis was a 2011 fifth-round pick by the Philadelphia Eagles, but that didn’t last long. He had a brief stop in Cleveland and then Indianapolis before finally landing with the New England Patriots in 2015 and finding his feet in the NFL.
He had just 36 carries before joining New England. He enters free agency coming off a 180-carry, 1,110-scrimmage yard, season.
The biggest reason Lewis stuck with the Patriots was his versatility. Initially considered to be the next receiving back for the team, the Patriots quickly found that Lewis could actually run the ball too. Despite his lack of size (5’8″, 195 lbs) Lewis plays with a low pad level and is more than willing to put his shoulder through a would-be tackler. He averaged 4.8 yards a carry with the Patriots, while also putting up a 8.2 yards a catch. That sort of production is hard to come by individually, nevermind together. Oh, and he can return kicks too.
Some of it can obviously be put down having a certain quarterback marshaling what is an extremely creative and innovative offense, but Lewis’ own foot speed, lateral agility, and decision-making is evident to see.
The perfect fit
Wherever Kyle Shanahan has ended up coordinating he has had a back that is forceful with their decision-making and capable of catching the ball out of the backfield. Be it Steve Slaton in Houston, Roy Helu in Washington, or Devonta Freeman in Atlanta, they have all had to run stretch-zone, inside dives, and be able to act as a dangerous checkdown weapon.
While Carlos Hyde ticks some of those boxes, and would be worth bringing back for the 49ers, Lewis has the chance to be the kind of all-purpose threat that Freeman was in 2016 when he put up ,1541 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns.
The Shanahan zone scheme isn't quite as pure as it used to be, and the 49ers offensive line is, at the moment, not as talented as either the Falcons or Patriots one, but Lewis has the skill set to be an every-down threat for the 49ers and can open up all kinds of possibilities to play the kind of formation games that Shanahan did so well in Atlanta.
While health is something of an issue for Lewis after his breakout in 2015 was cut short due to a torn ACL and the start of his 2016 campaign was hampered by surgical complications, he showed remarkable durability last season. The Patriots lent on him down the stretch, as he took 77 touches in the final three games of the regular season and amassed those 180 carries in what was really just ten games of being the #1 back.
With their quarterback already settled, and a new star on defense signed, the 49ers have dreams of the playoffs in 2018, but they need to secure their running game. Signing Lewis won't solve everything, but he is a perfect fit for what the 49ers want to do both aerially and on the ground. John Lynch would be crazy not to be on the phone to him when free agency opens up on Wednesday.
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