Hyde's opportunity to prove he deserves role in 49ers' rebuilding

Hyde's opportunity to prove he deserves role in 49ers' rebuilding

SANTA CLARA -- Running back Carlos Hyde enters the final year of his contract, and the 49ers have created flexibility in their plan for future seasons.

Hyde has a chance to convince the organization’s decision-makers he’s worthy of a role in the long-term rebuilding project with a contract extension after this season.

Hyde, 26, is coming off his best season since arriving on the scene as a second-round draft pick in 2014. He replaced Frank Gore as the starter to open the 2015 season. Hyde rushed for 988 yards and six touchdowns with a 4.6-yard average in 13 games last season.

Now, he must prove himself to a new coaching staff, including his fourth head coach in four seasons. Hyde is working with the 49ers' first-team offense during the offseason program. Six running backs split 19 rushing attempts during a practice last week, and Hyde carried the ball seven times.

“He’s doing an outstanding job,” 49ers running backs coach Bobby Turner said of Hyde. “But, again, I’m not surprised. You don’t always get what you expect, so I’m constantly inspecting my players consistently. But he’s eager. He’s eager to learn, and at this point in time he’s doing a good job.”

The 49ers appeared to enact their succession plan at running back during the draft. Turner and coach Kyle Shanahan were proponents of selecting Utah running back Joe Williams in the fourth round. General manager John Lynch, who had removed Williams from the team’s draft board, reconsidered his feelings on Williams and traded up to select him with the No. 121 overall pick.

“You have to know what you’re looking for,” Turner said. “You coach all the players up, and then it’s up to them. And, truthfully, I know when to get out of the way.

“There are a lot of people that’s involved in coaching the running backs, because everybody thinks they can coach the running backs. And so my ability is -- and the reason I’ve been doing this a long time -- is knowing when to get out of the way. I’m going to coach, coach, coach, coach, but get out of the way and let the players play, and let them run free.”

Williams showed all of the traits that convinced Turner and Shanahan he was a good fit for the team’s zone run scheme. The night before the fourth round of the draft, Shanahan told Peter King of the MMQB how much he wanted Williams.

“I’m telling you right now: If we don’t get him, I’ll be sick,” Shanahan said. “I will be contemplating Joe Williams all night.”

Turner has not seen anything during the 49ers’ offseason program that leads him away from his belief that Williams could thrive in the team’s system.

“He has the tools, the qualities of other players that’s worked well in the system,” Turner said. “But, again, there’s the toughness, and I’m not going to pinpoint everything, but he’s hungry, he has the physical tools, he has that speed, that foot quickness, and when it comes down to it, the mental toughness.”

“You pick up things, tone of voice and all those things. So, yeah, we all have adversities, and things like that. But I love what I saw in Joe.”

49ers begin final phase of offseason program

49ers begin final phase of offseason program

The 49ers have graduated back to the phase of the offseason when offense-vs.-defense drills are allowed.

Because of the hiring of Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers were allowed an additional “voluntary” minicamp before the NFL draft. That meant the 49ers were permitted to skip from the two-week conditioning phase of the offseason straight to what is allowed under Phase III.

But after the three-day minicamp in late-April, the 49ers were forced to retreat back to Phase II, when on-field drills but could not include offense vs. defense.

Beginning Monday – and over the next three weeks -- the 49ers can get back to conducting the standard one-on-one, 7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 "non-contact" drills. The 49ers have the maximum number of 10 organized team activities scheduled. The official offseason program concludes with a mandatory minicamp scheduled for June 13-15.

The real competition does not begin until the pads go on during training camp. but here’s a look at the team’s most notable offseason competitions (one position you will not find is quarterback, where the depth chart of Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley and C.J. Beathard appears clearly set):

Running back: Carlos Hyde, entering the final year of his original four-year contract, has a lot of competition to hold onto his role as the featured back. He is coming off his most-productive season, finishing just 12 yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark when he sustained a knee injury with one game remaining. Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner lobbied for Utah running back Joe Williams in the draft. They clearly see a fit for him within the system.

Pass-rush end: The 49ers’ pass rush was among the worst in the NFL the past two seasons. Arik Armstead will be given an opportunity to see if he can adapt to the “Leo” position. Aaron Lynch must earn the confidence of the coaching staff and front office. The 49ers added explosive, 243-pound pass Pita Taumoepenu in the sixth round.

Tight end: The 49ers confirmed Vance McDonald was available for a trade during the draft. After finding no takers, the 49ers brought back McDonald and he rejoins the competition among rookies George Kittle and Cole Hikutini, and veterans Logan Paulsen, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell.

Cornerback: Rashard Robinson is the obvious choice to start on one side. And assuming Jimmie Ward remains at free safety, the 49ers have no other player on the roster who has started a significant number of games at cornerback. Rookie Ahkello Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, will have a legitimate opportunity to win a starting job, as long as he displays a willingness to stick his nose into the action and play with the requisite level of physicality. Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser and Will Redmond should also be in the mix to replace Tramaine Brock, who was released shortly after his arrest after an alleged domestic incident last month.

Center: Jeremy Zuttah, a Pro Bowl performer, was added in the offseason via a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. Daniel Kilgore has been the 49ers’ center the past three seasons but injuries have limited him to just 23 starts over that period of time. Zuttah has position flexibility. The 49ers could determine the best thing for the offensive line is to move Zuttah to one of the guard positions – to challenge Zane Beadles or Joshua Garnett -- if he is not clearly better than Kilgore.

Weakside linebacker: The 49ers signed veteran Malcolm Smith on the first day of free agency, providing him with $11.5 million of fully guaranteed money. The 49ers ranked Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster as the No. 3 overall prospect in the draft. They traded up to select him at No. 31 overall. Assuming Foster is ready to compete at the beginning of training camp after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, it appears likely he would line up in that position and compete with Smith. The 49ers’ medical staff does not believe Foster will require any additional surgery, and Foster said he expects to be cleared for the opening of camp.

49ers Mailbag: Rookie RB Williams the favorite to unseat Hyde?

49ers Mailbag: Rookie RB Williams the favorite to unseat Hyde?

The 49ers begin organized team activities next week, which will give the coaching staff an extended opportunity to evaluate players before reconvening for training camp in late-July.

Here are a couple of questions submitted via Facebook about how some notable players fit into the new schemes:

Does Joe Williams have a real shot at supplanting Carlos Hyde as the starter? (Andrew Kerr)
Respected running backs coach Bobby Turner kept in touch with Williams even when he was not on the 49ers' draft board. Coach Kyle Shanahan desperately wanted Williams and convinced general manager John Lynch to reconsider Williams’ exclusion from the team’s draft plan.

The fact Turner and Shanahan campaigned for Williams speaks volumes about their plan for him. Turner and Shanahan wanted Williams. They see something in him. They know exactly how they want to use him.

So, yes, Williams has a legitimate chance to immediately unseat Hyde as the team’s top running back. Hyde is entering the final year of his contract. His first three seasons have been marked by inconsistencies and injuries that have sidelined him for 14 games.

The better player wins the job, and Williams has the distinct advantage of being the running back Turner and Shanahan hand-picked to fit their scheme.

Is Arik Armstead's future in jeopardy because he doesn't have a real position? (Joe Ruckus Marsh)
Solomon Thomas is a good fit at the “big end” position. Veteran Earl Mitchell appears to be the logical choice at nose tackle. And DeForest Bucker is expected to line up at the other interior position along the 49ers’ defensive line.

So that leaves Armstead at the pass-rush end spot in the 49ers’ new 4-3 defense. Right now, it appears he will compete with Aaron Lynch and others for that position.

If Armstead is not capable of playing the “Leo” position up to the specifications of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, then Armstead most likely becomes a high-priced backup to Thomas and Buckner. Lynch has said he believes Armstead is capable of playing three spots along the line. It’s just a matter of finding the intersection of where he is best-suited and where he is most needed.

Armstead is in a similar position to Hyde and some other returning players. He is no longer on scholarship as a high draft pick. John Lynch and Shanahan could not care less where he was drafted. He has to show more urgency and earn his role on the team.