SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- With the NFL's free-agent negotiating window opening in less than a week, the San Francisco 49ers have stayed in contact with representatives for running back Carlos Hyde, according to general manager John Lynch.
Speaking at last week's NFL combine, Lynch reiterated his previous stance that the Niners would be happy to welcome Hyde back for a fifth season and beyond. He also indicated he would have further meetings with Hyde's agents in Indianapolis.
"We’ve had discussions with Carlos all the way through the season," Lynch said. "We haven’t been able to come to an agreement, but those discussions are ongoing. This is a great opportunity. ... We have an opportunity and we will talk to all of [our free agents] right down to the wire. I wouldn’t say anything is imminent there."
This close to the start of free agency, it would be unusual for a team and a player to strike an agreement that has nothing to do with a one-year franchise or transition tag, neither of which is considered an option the Niners would pursue with Hyde. In the absence of a deal, all signs point to Hyde hitting the market and the 49ers exploring a talented class of running backs, which Lynch considers the deepest position in the upcoming NFL draft, as well as some intriguing possibilities in free agency.
In fact, the Niners did their due diligence on the top running back prospects at the scouting combine, hosting nearly all of them in 15-minute formal interviews. Lynch acknowledged discussions with Penn State's Saquon Barkley, USC's Ronald Jones and Oregon's Royce Freeman, but said others also were brought in. LSU's Derrius Guice, San Diego State's Rashaad Penny and Georgia's Sony Michel and Nick Chubb are other highly regarded prospects.
The 49ers hold the No. 9 overall pick, and only Barkley figures to be of that caliber, but after his electrifying combine performance, it's all but certain Barkley will be long gone before the Niners are on the clock.
"The whole dynamic of that position, in many people’s minds, losing value, but I think much like a quarterback, when there’s a great one, it’s tough to deal with," Lynch said. "I know that from playing defense. So I think is that changing? I don’t know. I think everyone has their own perspective. But that is a position where you can affect a game in a great way."
Even if Barkley did somehow land in San Francisco's draft range, the question would become whether a Kyle Shanahan-coached team would invest such a precious pick in a running back? Shanahan and his father have built a reputation for finding mid- to late-round picks or undrafted free agents and turning them into productive backs, if not stars.
Given what Lynch said about the position plus Barkley's performance at the combine and on the field, it would be hard to resist pairing him with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to give the Niners a dynamic duo in the backfield.
Still, with so many talented backs, the Niners could theoretically wait and find someone capable of becoming a top-level talent. Just last year, New Orleans' Alvin Kamara and Kansas City's Kareem Hunt were taken in the third round and went on to become the league's most dynamic rookie backs and among the best in the league regardless of age.
Despite his track record, Shanahan said he's not married to a philosophy of waiting on running backs.
“Everyone says you can get running backs later in the draft, which you can," Shanahan said. "You can also get them early in the draft. I think if [Pittsburgh's] Le’Veon Bell came out this year, I’m sure he’d be a top-five pick. I think he went in the second round. I think [Arizona's] David Johnson would be the same.
“People always want to find those top running backs. People have found a lot of running backs later in rounds, like what Kareem Hunt did this year. You always go back to Terrell Davis and those people. You don’t have to get them in the first round, more like you do a tackle or an elite pass-rusher. But still, if there’s a running back there that you think is going to be like some of those guys I mentioned, then that guy is worth the first pick in the draft just like anybody else would be.”
As for Hyde, he was healthy and productive last season but didn't look like an ideal match for the Niners' outside zone concepts and struggled in the passing game. That could open the door for San Francisco to look at free-agent options such as Dion Lewis, Jerick McKinnon and Isaiah Crowell.
As it stands, the 49ers have four backs returning to the roster: Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert, Joe Williams and Jeremy McNichols. Of that group, only undrafted rookie Breida contributed, with 465 rushing yards on 4.4 yards per carry. Shanahan and the Niners remain hopeful that Williams can be the next mid-round pick to develop into a starting caliber back, but there's not enough evidence to blindly believe that will happen.
“I really hope Joe can be like that," Shanahan said. "I hope Breida can be like that. I hope Raheem Mostert can be like that. I think we’ve got a lot of guys with some talent on our roster that not many people know about. It’s not the talent that always brings it apart. A lot of these guys have talent and that’s why you find them. But it’s how they respond to the NFL and the pressures of it and running back is a different deal in the league. Those guys hit hard, and you’ve got to do it week in and week out and not just one game, and 16 games is tough to get through.”