Without Jerick McKinnon, 49ers sort through running back situation

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In the days after signing running back Jerick McKinnon to a four-year, $30 million contract in March, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan began plotting the many ways he hoped to deploy his newest weapon.

With the contract to match, McKinnon was on the brink of becoming the Niners' starter and one of the focal points of Shanahan's offense, both as a runner and pass-catcher. The fantasy football community took notice, too, with McKinnon going as high as the early part of the second round in some early drafts.

Then, disaster.

McKinnon tore the ACL in his right knee in a practice on Sept. 1, ending his first season with the Niners before it began.

“Since the day we signed him, we’ve been game planning for Minnesota," Shanahan said then. "So, I’m not going to lie, it changes things pretty drastically. That was your first target in free agency, so once you do it, you have a plan on how to use him, especially going into Week 1. ... We definitely had to go back in and change some things, but definitely still excited about what we’ve got.”

What the Niners have is the trio of Alfred Morris, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert. In the season-opening 24-16 loss to the Vikings on Sunday, Shanahan used a timeshare between Morris and Breida that would make Mike Shanahan proud and drive fantasy owners crazy.

Technically, Morris got the start, playing the first few snaps, before Breida got his opportunity. In the end, Morris played 34 offensive snaps and Breida handled 30. Mostert was in for one offensive play, though he got 18 on special teams.

Even with the distribution of opportunities, the Niners appear no closer to understanding the best way to replace McKinnon.

“There were a number of times I thought [Breida and Morris] got more than what we blocked for,” Shanahan said. “We’re still trying to get a feel for that and how to balance out. They’re two guys we’ve got a lot of confidence in. ... I think we’ll start to get a better feel with that each week and what our 2018 team ends up being.”

In other words, if you're counting on Breida or Morris to play a substantial role for your fantasy team, now is not the time to push your chips into the middle of the table.

That said, there did seem to be a few more positives on Breida's ledger than Morris'.

Breida finished with 11 carries for 46 yards to go with one catch for 5 yards on two targets. Morris, meanwhile, had 12 carries for 38 yards, was not targeted in the passing game and coughed up a costly fumble at Minnesota's goal line.

Coming off a shoulder injury that cut short a promising training camp and kept him out for San Francisco's final three preseason games, Breida said he felt pretty good once he got back in the swing of things.

As a rookie in 2017, Breida was the clear backup to Carlos Hyde. After Hyde departed for the Cleveland Browns in free agency, Breida looked poised to have a solid role, but those opportunities figured to increase after McKinnon's injury.

Because Breida's first NFL season came as a backup, the idea of splitting time with Morris isn't daunting.

"[It's] definitely easier, especially splitting time in the season," Breida said. "It’s a long season, 16 games, so that rotation really helps you feel fresh when you’re going in."

Morris, meanwhile, signed with the Niners on Aug. 14 after the team had multiple injuries at the position. Since, Morris has worked to get reacclimated to Shanahan's offense, a scheme that produced his two best NFL seasons when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins and Morris was beginning his career.

Morris rushed for a combined 2,888 yards and 20 touchdowns while averaging 4.72 yards per carry in those two seasons. While Morris said he felt good against the Vikings, he also acknowledged that he's trying to round into football shape.

“I feel like I’m not where I want to be, but every day I’m getting closer to it," Morris said. "I feel like I’m getting my legs back under me, getting my football lungs and things like that and just learning the playbook, so I’m playing faster and not thinking. So just every day I’ve got to work at it, so that’s what I’m doing."

Ideally, the 49ers would be able to come up with defined roles for Morris and Breida without either having a job so obvious that it tips off the defense whenever one enters. And while the Niners will be able to gather more information and evaluate both players in the coming weeks, it's also possible that the ultimate conclusion will be that a timeshare simply makes the most sense.

"I don’t mind either way," Morris said. "Splitting it like that or taking a heavy load to get in a rhythm, it doesn’t matter to me. ... If that’s what they want to continue to do, great. If they want to have one of us be lead dog and kind of go and just spell [the other], then that’s great, too."