The 49ers run game has been dominant, downright remarkable, thus-far in 2012. Surprising to most is that Frank Gore has carried the load rather than being spelled, "kept fresh", by the wealth of backs in the stable behind him. An added surprise is that Brandon Jacobs hasn't had a single carry and has only suited-up once this season.
Rookie LaMichael James was drafted in the second round after having a prolific career at Oregon where his incredible athleticism was used in a wide variety of ways...yet he hasn't donned a set of pads in a game this year, either. And then the 49ers also have Jewel Hampton on the squad, sort of.
Hampton, the hard-nosed, thick runner with an injury history, has been on the Non Football Injury list in preseason and then the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list to open the year. This means that the 49ers now have three weeks to decide whether or not to add Hampton to the 53-man roster or rule him ineligible to return, staying on the PUP list. In the meantime Hampton can practice with the team while they make their evaluation.
It's no secret that Frank Gore is nearing the age of 30, the magic time to cut a running back loose as they tend to experience rapid decline thereafter. Fans have been toying with the idea of trading Gore while he's still effective for a few years now, especially with Kendall Hunter showing promise the past two seasons.
Drafting James in the second round seems to indicate he will be a part of the future of the position as well, plus Anthony Dixon as the special teams / third RB makes the position rather crowded going forward. Brandon Jacobs surely won't want to return next year after spending already half of 2012 on the inactive game-day list, so it's likely he's not part of the equation.
But could the 49ers make a decision to go younger at the position, trading Frank Gore and making Hunter, James, and Dixon the three running backs on the roster? Or perhaps Jewel Hampton has a strong camp next year and takes the place Jacobs has held, "insurance back", while Gore stays with the team but his role is minimalized?
I tend to think Gore will play out his contract and that the 49ers are simply stocking-up in the event that he does decline in the next few years. If that happens though, what decision will they make? Keep the "old man" around in a limited role, or make a move towards the future?
It's definitely a question that we'll see answered in the coming year or two.