Prior to December of 2020, Trey Sermon was likely to be a late-round NFL draft pick or UDFA. He rushed for 385 yards the previous year at Oklahoma, suffered an injury, and then became a backup to Master Teague at Ohio State. The skills were there, but he seemed to be an unfortunate victim of injuries and bad luck. Coaches and teammates complimented his work ethic and unselfish attitude, leading Buckeye fans to hope he could eventually just make an NFL roster. Nobody envisioned Sermon as a viable NFL starter or potential fantasy football pick with tremendous upside.
However, as Michael Scott once said: “Well, well, well. How the turntables…” You get it, let’s talk football.
Sermon broke out in a huge way late in the season. Following a Teague injury, the Oklahoma transfer racked up 589 total yards (524 rushing) over a two-game span — those games being the Big Ten Championship and Ohio State’s College Football Playoff matchup against Clemson.
Specifically against Northwestern, Sermon ran like a man possessed and refused to go down on first contact. Suddenly, people took notice of the fourth-year running back; all it took was opportunity. He averaged 14.5 carries per game with the Buckeyes, up nearly three per game from his previous high of 11.7 in 2018. Unfortunately, Sermon was once again bitten by the injury bug against Alabama, but avoided anything too severe. His stock had already risen as a result of the late-season surge, and he was taken 88th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft by San Francisco. It would be an understatement to say that he landed in an ideal situation.
The San Francisco 49ers love to run the football. That may be an understatement… the Niners are borderline obsessed with running the ball. Their coach, Kyle Shanahan, leans heavily on a zone running scheme with plenty of bunch formations and pre-snap motion.
The prolific run game allows his team to use that pre-snap motion to confuse opposing defenses, and also sets up the play-action pass. The formations are often similar in appearance, but Shanahan is a master at using misdirection and getting players in space — hopefully matched up against inferior athletes. The coach is very specific when it comes to the type of running back he wants, so that bodes well for Sermon and his future potential.
The Niners and their coach clearly coveted the former Buckeye. San Fran traded two picks to move up and select him in the third round. Oddly enough, what Sermon lacks is top-end speed, which Shanahan has gravitated towards in recent seasons. Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman, and Raheem Mostert are (were) 4.4 or faster guys; in or around a group of the fastest backs in the league.
However, the coach has also gotten plenty of production out of bruisers such as Carlos Hyde, Alfred Morris, and Kyle Juszczyk during his time in The Bay. Sermon was identified as having all other traits necessary to succeed in SF’s zone scheme, and the draft capital given up to go and get him should not be discounted.
Fourth round picks are real assets, especially for a team that dealt with a ton of injury and depth issues. Sermon will get his opportunity, even if that is not as an immediate starter.
Due to their proclivity for running the ball, the Niners always look to multiple running backs. Under Shanahan, the team has rushed the ball over 400 times in each of his seasons coached. Partly due to injury, Jerick McKinnon received 81 carries in 2020 — good for third on the team. In 2019, Matt Breida received the third-most with 123. McKinnon is a journeyman who was coming off of two full seasons missed due to injury, and Breida was an undrafted free agent who SF then traded for basically nothing… so how good is the opportunity upside for a back the team targeted in the draft, and moved up to get?
I believe Trey Sermon has the most upside amongst current SF running backs, and it really isn’t that close. Raheem Mostert came out of nowhere to be very productive for the team in 2019, but it may have been more fluke than true breakout. He was named the starter for 2020, but was unable to stay healthy. While Mostert has blazing speed, he was a core special teams player from 2015-2018, and 2019 remains the only season in which he has played a full season. He should be the handcuff to Sermon, once the rookie gets acclimated to life in the NFL.
If SF is willing to use him as a complimentary back, he could potentially avoid the injuries he has been prone to and be the change-of-pace home run hitter he was in 2018 and 2019 (6.7 yards per carry). The team also has an injured Jeff Wilson on the roster (team’s leading rusher in 2020), and they brought in Wayne Gallman via free agency. Not exactly a Murderers’ Row of running back competition. I am clearly not an NFL general manager or coach, but it seems as if the team may agree, which is why they gave up assets to get Sermon.
Currently, Sermon is being pegged as the top backup to Mostert, and that certainly would not be a surprise – especially to begin the season. Once the season gets rolling, I could see the depth chart getting flipped very quickly. In terms of fantasy football, that means Sermon can be had later in drafts. Fantasy owners could be bold, and draft him as having an assumed role sooner-than-later. He is currently being taken outside the top-30 running backs, regardless of league rules and scoring formats. I am here to tell you that the timeshare SF has used in recent years should not scare fantasy owners away from drafting Sermon inside the top-25.
SF’s timeshare has often been out of necessity. They have dealt with a myriad of running back injuries since Shanahan took over in 2017. Although Sermon has dealt with his own injuries, and played four full(ish) seasons in college, he enters the NFL fresh and will a relatively clean bill of health. Despite the knee injury during his junior year, Sermon only missed two regular season games at Oklahoma. He was able to rehab and be ready for Ohio State’s 2020 opener, and then played in every game for the Buckeyes.
Due to his usage as part of a rotation, he should have plenty of tread left on the tires. Sermon carried the ball 455 times in college. By comparison, Jonathan Taylor accumulated 926 carries in three years at Wisconsin. Availability is a skill in the NFL and fantasy football, and the former OSU back has proven that he can be relied upon.
Going after Sermon early would not be without risk. He is a third-round rookie, never ran for 1,000 yards in a college season, and rose up draft boards primarily due to his performance across two games. I say look past that. His college workload was comparable to two full seasons from a good starting running back. Framed that way, his 2,900 yards, 6.5 YPC, and 26 touchdowns look pretty damn good.
He is now entering a great situation, with ample opportunity for running backs. Whether part of a committee or used as the lead back, Kyle Shanahan will get the best out of his rookie. It is not a foregone conclusion that Sermon will rotate, and Shanahan has been equally successful when focusing in on a single running back to carry the load. Before he rotated backs in San Francisco, he was the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons, and had Devonta Freeman at his disposal.
Freeman was the unquestioned RB1, and finished as a top-5 fantasy running back in 2015 and 2016. If one guy is able to set himself apart and take the crown for San Francisco in 2021, that player could enjoy similar success. Buckeye fans and fantasy football homers hope that it is Trey Sermon.