One of the most interesting moves of the offseason was Tevin Coleman’s signing with the 49ers on a two-year, $10-million deal. On the one hand, Coleman seems an unnecessary luxury on a team that already has Matt Breida and Jerick McKinnon. On the other, Coleman did his best work in Atlanta when 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator. Coleman’s projected role will be one of the most intriguing developments of the summer. Here’s a look at how the 25-year-old’s cross-country move impacts both the 49ers and Falcons for this upcoming fantasy season.
As it stands, the 49ers have one of the most crowded backfields in the league. In addition to Coleman, Breida and McKinnon, the 49ers still have Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson, as well as fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
Coleman put together a solid 2018 season, starting 14 games after Devonta Freeman went down with an injury. He ran for 800 yards and four touchdowns on 167 carries, racked up 276 receiving yards and five more scores on 32 receptions, and ended the year ranked 19th among running backs in half-PPR leagues. Considering Ito Smith was in the mix, as well, Coleman made just about as much of his role as was realistically possible.
Outside of the expectation of a major timeshare in San Francisco’s backfield, nothing is guaranteed. It’s likely Shanahan views Coleman as more of a key complementary piece than a workhorse, but there’s no facsimile for Freeman in the 49ers offense. McKinnon isn’t that type of player, and while Breida could be, he has been awfully injury-prone in his career. All three of them will have roles in the offense, and much of what we see in training camp and the exhibition season will help us determine just how much fantasy value they have individually.
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The one constant is Shanahan, and understanding that can help us determine how much value the backfield will have as a whole. In his two years as the offensive coordinator in Atlanta, the Falcons averaged 420.5 rushing attempts with 125.5 running back targets per season. During his first two years at the helm of the 49ers, the team averaged 415.5 rushing attempts and 136.5 running back targets. Add it up, and you get a 59.8% touch share to for Shanahan’s running backs, which bodes well for the position collectively. Spinning that forward and applying it to the 2019 49ers, the leader of this backfield should see something along the lines of the 167 carries and 44 targets Coleman got in Atlanta last season.
4for4’s John Paulsen has Coleman ranked as 29th among running backs heading into the season, a fair assessment at this still-early stage on the fantasy football calendar, given the uncertainty in San Francisco’s backfield. That uncertainty will give people some pause, but the usage should be there for Coleman, and he’ll easily have more upside than most backs in his draft-day neighborhood.
Moving over to Atlanta, Freeman should resume his role as the team's lead back in. In 2017, the 27-year-old played in 14 games and averaged 16.6 touches per contest. He could reach that mark again, but it’s no secret that the Falcons want to get Ito Smith more involved this year. He got 90 carries and 32 targets as a rookie, turning that into 467 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns. Still, this backfield belongs to Freeman. Before last year, he had three consecutive excellent seasons, ending those campaigns ranked first, sixth and 13th among running backs in half-PPR leagues.
Last season, Atlanta ranked 27th in rushing offense and had the third-fewest rushing attempts in the NFL with 351, though that owed at least partially to Freeman’s absence. He has some wear and tear on his body, but he’s still just 27 years old. Freeman projects as an easy RB2, while Smith will have some value as a depth player, handcuff to Freeman, and zero-RB target.