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Raheem Mostert went from NFL castoff to 49ers playoff legend

Mostert didn’t come out of nowhere to roast the Packers — he’s been waiting for this moment since 2015.

NFC Championship - Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The greatest running performance in 49ers playoff history didn’t come from a first-round pick. It came from a player six other teams decided they didn’t want before he found a home in the Bay Area.

Raheem Mostert has been one of the biggest factors in the San Francisco’s newfound postseason success. But his 58-yard performance — one that included a muffed punt recovery — in a Divisional Round win over the Vikings was merely an appetizer for his main course. He feasted on the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, torching a shaky run defense for 160 yards and three touchdowns ... in the first half alone.

Mostert outgained Green Bay 156-93 (he had one catch for -4 yards) en route to a 27-0 halftime lead that left little doubt about who the NFC’s top team was. By the third quarter he’d broken Colin Kaepernick’s record for most rushing yards in a playoff game in San Francisco history. He finished his night with 220 yards and four touchdowns — second only to Eric Dickerson’s 1986 showing against the Cowboys as the league’s top postseason running performance.

If you look at his long and winding path to Santa Clara, you can see how close he was to not even making it this far.

The five-year veteran bounced across the league early in a career that looked destined to top out at “good, but not good enough.” The former track star shuffled between six different teams in his first two seasons in the league, earning special teams snaps and shifting from practice squads to active rosters as teams struggled to balance his potential with the production they needed.

For a while, it looked as though Mostert would leave behind a legacy as a preseason hero and eventual high spot in future AAF/XFL drafts. Then the Niners stepped in and gave him the perfect backdrop for his unique set of skills.

Mostert was an unsung hero for the NFC’s best team ... until Sunday

Mostert landed in San Francisco in 2016 after brief stints with the Eagles, Dolphins, Ravens, Browns, Jets, and Bears. While his talent was clear, his place on the field was not.

Mostert fluctuated between wideout and running back in his four seasons at Purdue and had three times as many kick return yards (2,289) as rushing yards (759) with the Boilermakers. That funneled him into the NFL as part of a deep pile of undrafted free agents.

While his abilities as a gunner and kick returner made him a useful puzzle piece, he failed to make an impact outside of special teams. In his first two seasons as a pro, he had just one carry out of the backfield.

The 49ers liked his special teams production enough to keep him around full time after a practice squad stint in 2016. Although his following two seasons would end on injured reserve, it was clear he was growing into new roles under head coach Kyle Shanahan, who took over on the sideline in 2017.

In the past three years, he’s grown from someone who almost exclusively played special teams to a key cog in the Niners’ tailback machine. When injuries hampered teammates Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon, and Matt Breida, Mostert proved ready to absorb their carries while making the case for more pages in the San Francisco playbook. Despite not starting a single game in 2019, he set career highs in every counting stat out there:

Raheem Mostert’s rise, 2017-19

Raheem Mostert G Rush Yds TD Y/A Tgt Rec Yds Y/R TD Y/Tgt
Raheem Mostert G Rush Yds TD Y/A Tgt Rec Yds Y/R TD Y/Tgt
2017 11 6 30 0 5 0 0 0 0 0
2018 9 34 261 1 7.7 7 6 25 4.2 0 3.6
2019 16 137 772 8 5.6 22 14 180 12.9 2 8.2

Mostert saw his broken tackle rate rise from 14.7 percent in 2018 to 20.4 percent last fall. He averaged 11 yards after the catch each time he hauled in a pass from Jimmy Garoppolo. He added value in blitz pickups. He was good at just about everything.

That set the table for his NFC title game breakout

Mostert’s 58 yards last week were a solid number for the young veteran — then the ninth-most of his career. He’d eclipse that mark 18 minutes into Sunday’s game.

An arm injury to lead back Tevin Coleman forced Mostert to the top of Shanahan’s decision tree. The former practice squad mainstay was ready for the opportunity. He carried the ball 14 times in the first half and gained nine yards or more on eight of those touches. The 49ers scored on every drive in which Mostert earned at least one handoff in the first and second quarters. All four of their touchdowns were thanks to the former track star for whom six other teams didn’t keep on the roster.

He didn’t just shatter the Packers’ Super Bowl hopes with those runs; he made history. Mostert is the first player in the NFL to ever rush for 150+ yards and three touchdowns in a single half in the postseason. He added a fourth late in the third quarter to answer a Green Bay touchdown that had cut San Francisco’s lead to 27-7.

Only two other players in NFL history have ever rushed for four touchdowns or more in the postseason; fellow 49er Ricky Watters in 1994 (who had five) and Patriot tailback LeGarrette Blount in 2014 (four).

That’s not bad for an undrafted free agent who had to churn through six other NFL teams before finding the one who wasn’t afraid to give him the ball.