Although the NFL has seen a heavy influence of the passing game in recent years, the 49ers remained one of the bigger running threats. The 49ers rushed the ball 49% of the time last season, which was good for third in the NFL. For comparison's sake, the 49ers rushed the ball 39% of the time in 2010, which ranked 19th. If you want to attempt to factor in issues of playing behind, in 2010 the 49ers rushed the ball in the first half 42% of the time, while doing so 44% of the time this past season.
It's safe to say, Coach Harbaugh enjoys running the ball. While Coach Harbaugh was at Stanford, Andrew Luck received most of the press. However, the Cardinal put together a dominant rushing attack, which was just as important to their success. Although the 49ers have added more receiving talent, and will be looking for more production in the passing game, the rushing game will be a key in 2012. SB Nation's Ryan Van Bibber looks favorably upon the 49ers running backs, ranking them fifth among all teams.
Yesterday we took a look at the bubble watch surrounding the quarterback position. With running back LaMichael James and all the other rookies officially reporting to Santa Clara today, I thought we'd move on to the running back bubble watch. Frank Gore enters the season as the starter, but the battle for playing time behind him will be one of the most prominent parts of training camp. There are numerous roles to be carved out, including who (or multiples who's) could supplant Frank Gore as the starting running back down the road.
I have not included Rock Cartwright in the poll because he will be focusing almost exclusively on special teams. He could impact Anthony Dixon's chances, but I'm keeping him out of the poll for now.
In the original bubble watch post earlier this week, I listed Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James as locks, Brandon Jacobs and Rock Cartwright as strong bubble, Anthony Dixon as weak bubble and Jewel Hampton as a longshot. At this point I see no reason to change from that, particularly since I see no reason a healthy Hunter and James do not make the roster.
The big battles in training camp will be Kendall Hunter vs. LaMichael James and Brandon Jacobs vs. Anthony Dixon. Hunter and James are battling for more playing time, as opposed to battling for their roster lives. It has been an interesting discussion surrounding these two. I've seen contrary opinions as to which would work better running up the middle, versus swinging outside. Hunter had as many carries as any running back has had in backing up Frank Gore. Hunter and James will almost assuredly combine for more carries than that this coming season, but the balance of who gets what touches is a tough one to figure out.
Brandon Jacobs and Anthony Dixon will square off for the power role in the running game. While Gore can be used in such a role at times, the 49ers would seem to be hoping Jacobs or Dixon can emerge as the man to handle that part of the game. Dixon has faced increased competition each year, and even though he hasn't done a lot to hold off the competition, he has still managed to maintain his roster spot, thanks in part to big special teams contributions.
If Rock Cartwright makes the roster, it is fairly unlikely that he will contribute to the running game. This is part of what could impact Anthony Dixon's roster chances. I've heard nothing but good things about Cartwright's leadership and special teams skills in Oakland. If Anthony Dixon is going to make the roster, he'll need to show he can avoid the tap-dancing behind the line, while also showing he can be a strong contributor on special teams. And even then, he faces an uphill battle.
Opinions differ on how secure Brandon Jacobs roster spot is heading into camp. He has plenty to prove in camp, but I have to think he has the edge over Dixon. Giants fans point to his own habit of dancing despite his size, so we could have quite the dance-off in August.
Lock: Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James
Strong Bubble: Brandon Jacobs, Rock Cartwright
Weak Bubble: Anthony Dixon
Long Shots: Jewel Hampton