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Rookie contract hero: All hail Matt Breida, the NFL’s rushing leader

Injuries forced Breida into the spotlight — and he’s stepped up so far.

NFL: Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

When 2018 free agent prize Jerick McKinnon went down in the preseason with a torn ACL, he threatened to take the 49ers’ rushing offense down with him. Fortunately for San Francisco, an undrafted free agent out of Georgia Southern was ready to shoulder that load.

A little more than one year after turning a preseason opportunity into a roster spot, Matt Breida has emerged as a legitimate NFL starting tailback. Through two games, Breida ranks first in the league in rushing yards (184) but tied for 26th in carries. After torching Detroit for 134 yards on 11 rushes, he’s been recognized as one of Week 2’s elite running backs by the NFL.

Last Sunday’s breakout built from a 46-yard performance against a stout Vikings run defense, proving the underappreciated Sun Belt star could use years of hard work to polish his opportunity until it shined like a diamond. But will Breida’s two-week tryout as the Niners’ lead back be remembered as a blip on the radar before becoming one of fantasy football’s most-dropped players? Or can San Francisco count on him to be a savings-generating weapon who allows the team to sneak big signing bonuses and restructured contracts onto its salary cap in 2019 and 2020?

Was Breida’s breakthrough Week 2 performance a function of his skill, or the Lions’ ineptitude?

Let’s start here. The Lions defense is bad. The greatest gift Matt Patricia gave the Patriots on his way out of New England is the opportunity to finally face a Matt Patricia defense in 2018.

In Week 2, Detroit buckled down on Jimmy Garoppolo, giving Patricia the opportunity to showcase years and years of background on the Patriots’ former backup QB. The Lions were spread thin beyond their four-man front, and this extra space gave the Niner tailback the chance to show off his vision and acceleration. He cut through a small opening on his first carry of the game to turn a three-yard gain into a 28-yarder:

The Lions didn’t exactly make it hard for him, but that quick lateral burst to cut back into a rapidly closing hole, and the open-field juke that follows, are what turn this play from mundane into a highlight. Despite the traffic, no one actually touches Breida until he’s 12 yards past the line of scrimmage.

That creativity and speed also shined through on the 66-yard touchdown run that touched on each sideline during play that wound up lasting 13 dang seconds. Breida’s patience and vision were on display once again here, as he finds his blockers downfield and follows them into daylight — even if they’re on the opposite side of the field.

But Breida also struggled to create space when the Detroit defense was compressed in the red zone. He got five carries inside the Lions’ 20-yard line and logged only 18 hard-fought yards. The rest of the day — with his defenders spaced out deep behind the line of scrimmage — he had six carries and an absurd 120 yards.

And that’s the rub with a 5’10, 190-pound back like Breida. His ability to punch through those holes is predicated on speed, not power. He’s not going to be able to push a pile or plow through traffic. San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan has made the most of that by primarily running him off tackle or on sweeps that keep him from a clogged middle of the field. He also hardly touched the ball once Shanahan wanted to salt down the clock with a fourth-quarter lead. Those meat-and-potato dives instead went to Alfred Morris, who leads the team with 26 carries so far (for a mere 86 yards).

But what happens when defenses close off those avenues? Now that Breida has notched the first 100-yard game of his career, he’s going to be facing much more pressure — though, to be fair, their next opponent might not be the right team to slow him down. The Chiefs have allowed 4.5 yards per carry so far this year.

Is Breida ready for a lead role as an NFL tailback?

A look back at his history as a lead back in college suggests yes, but the evidence isn’t exactly rock solid. Breida churned out 34 touchdowns and nearly 3,100 yards in his first two seasons at Georgia Southern, tearing up competition like Idaho, South Alabama, and Louisiana-Monroe in the process. When he got the chance to impress against big-time programs (and Navy), he impressed. He ran for 5.4 yards per carry and six touchdowns in seven Power 5 games against an upgraded lineup that included West Virginia, Ole Miss, and Georgia.

But the majority of those big performances happened in head coach Willie Fritz’s gun option, a unique offensive strategy that kept the ball on the ground and gave an outmanned Eagles team the extra punch they needed to make their transition to the FBS a success. Fritz left for Tulane before Breida’s senior year, and replacement Tyson Summers’ attempts to jazz up that offense by doubling its passing attempts proved disastrous for both Georgia Southern and Breida’s draft hopes — he ran for 646 yards in 12 games that fall and couldn’t even get invited to the NFL Combine.

His talent shined brightly enough to land a rotational role as a rookie with San Francisco, where he spelled Carlos Hyde in the backfield in a solid, 465-yard season. He showed he could be a damaging change-of-pace runner, but there are unknowns he’ll have to dispel before he can stake his claim as a three-down back.

Breida is still an unproven receiver whose targets decreased in 2017 when Jimmy Garoppolo proved himself to be leagues better than the Niners’ checkdown machine combo of Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard. Over the small sample size of his 18-game NFL career, he’s caught fewer than 60 percent of his targets — an extremely low rate for a tailback who does most of his work near the line of scrimmage. He only had 22 catches in three college seasons though, he was playing in unique option situations the entire time.

His red zone concerns are also an issue. He’s got three career NFL touchdowns to his name. All three have come from 30-plus yards away. That’s awesome, but until he can prove he’s got short-yardage chops, conventional wisdom says he’s going to need a beefier, 225-plus pound back to share a platoon with for moments when opponents stack the line.

Still, Breida’s concerns aren’t really negatives as much as they are “we don’t know”s right now. Another big 100-yard performance would go a long way in dropping them down to a six-point font on his “cons” list.

So what’s he gonna cost the 49ers in 2021?

Breida is a dirt cheap option for San Francisco since he signed a three-year, $1.6 million deal after going undrafted in 2017. Not only will the club have his rights for the 2019 season, but he’ll also be a restricted free agent in 2020, allowing the Niners to match any deal a competing franchise throws his way. Unless he signs an early extension, general manager John Lynch will hold dominion over him the same way the Patriots did with Malcolm Butler for the first four years of his career.

He hasn’t shown off the two-way chops that led to a massive contract extension for Todd Gurley (four years, $57.5 million) and a massive extension offer for Le’Veon Bell (five years and $70 million). Even so, if Breida remains an effective but limited off-guard home run specialist, he’ll still earn. He’ll have to bulk up to get there first, though.

There are currently 23 running backs signed to eight-figure contracts in the NFL. Only one, the TitansDion Lewis, is listed at a weight less than 200 pounds (though the Lions’ Theo Riddick, at 201 pounds, is pretty close). Skinnier backs like Breida don’t typically sustain high levels of play at 190 pounds. And while he hasn’t missed a game in either college or the NFL, he’s already got a history of shoulder injuries that have followed him into the pros.

So, for the sake of the exercise, let’s say he can get to 205 pounds without losing his 4.38-second 40-yard dash speed and satisfy general managers by continuing to avoid injury despite a heightened workload — both difficult but reasonable “ifs”. He could set his sights on an inflated version of the $30 million deal McKinnon signed with the Niners last offseason, though he’d have to demonstrate a bigger presence in the passing game to get there.

The good news is, he can add that facet over the next 2.87 seasons; especially playing under Shanahan, who turned both Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman into important aerial weapons while he was offensive coordinator with the Falcons.

If Breida can continue to work effectively outside the tackles, make 40 catches per season, and find an inexpensive bruiser to pair with at the goal line, he’d be worth something like four years and $32 million against an estimated $195 million cap in 2021. It’s going to take much more than just two big games to get there, however — even if he can drop “NFL’s leading rusher in 2018” at the top of his resume. For now, San Francisco will be satisfied as long as he can make the club forget about its $30 million investment currently stuck on injured reserve.

Other rookie contract studs who upped their value in Week 2:

Patrick Mahomes II, QB, Chiefs (Six (six!) touchdown passes vs. the Steelers)

Kenny Golladay, WR, Lions (13 catches, 203 yards in two games for Detroit)

Tevin Coleman, RB, Falcons (107 rushing yards vs. the Panthers)

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Panthers (102 receiving yards vs. the Falcons)

Jesse James, TE, Steelers (five catches, 138 yards, one TD vs. the Chiefs)

Phillip Lindsay, RB, Broncos (14 carries, 107 yards vs. the Raiders)

Previously in rookie contract heroes:

Week 1: Michael Thomas