Handing off to running back Frank Gore has been the expected play for the San Francisco 49ers on first down for ... about as long as he's been in the NFL. Since cashing in on the amazing value of tanking Gore in the third round of the draft, the 49ers have drafted running backs over the years in hopes of finding a suitable backup and more recently, possibly a successor.
Aside from a brief moment in which KORY SHEETS WAS OUR FUTURE, the 49ers had been lacking anybody who even registers as dangerous at the position until taking Kendall Hunter in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
Hunter seemed well on his way to being an exciting backup, but also a potential starter in the future. Few expected the 49ers to go after another running back with any big investment, but the team once again sought significant value by taking the undersized LaMichael James in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
Prior to the beginning of the season, the roles of each running back were debated, but most settled on the feeling that James would be a change of pace running back, while Hunter would be the backup to Gore proper. But when the season started, Hunter served as the primary backup and James didn't see any snaps.
Then, the thing that every player, coach and fan hates happened: Hunter went down with an injury. The silver lining was that James actually got to see some playing time, and that he looked pretty good.
Still, he wasn't as productive as Hunter was when he had the ball. Before going down with an injury, Hunter had 371 yards off of 72 carries with two touchdowns and a very stellar 5.2 yards per carry average. With 27 attempts, James had 125 yards and no touchdowns, but the more comparable number is the 4.6 yards per carry average he had.
James had a lot of runs where he didn't pick up anything, while Hunter has had that Gore quality of making something happen with nothing, at least most recently. It's safe to say that Hunter has shown more to this point, but given that James was a rookie thrust into his role, and given Hunter's recovery from an injury, who knows what will happen going forward.
There are some very safe assumptions when it comes to the 49ers. It's safe to say that Colin Kaepernick will be the quarterback next season. It's safe to say that the defense will continue to play a lot of nickel formation and eschew the base 3-4. But I've totally given up on many things, including what their exact plans are regarding the running back position.
Will they draft another body? I think that's one thing we can definitely agree on: no. There won't be another running back, unless they are dissatisfied with the way the practice squad is shaping up. It's definitively one position that we can remove from the plausibility of the first several rounds, I'd say.
But what's going to happen once the regular season gets underway?
Gore doesn't have much time left in the NFL. We'd like to think that he's just going to keep going and going and, truthfully, I don't think he'll ever experience a period of extreme decline. I feel like Gore will just call it quits one day or properly move into a more limited role at some point, but the fact is that whatever does happen to take Gore away as the primary starting option is going to happen soon.
So what's to happen with Hunter and James? Both running backs look like they could be starters, and both surely WANT to be starters. While Gore may have another couple seasons in him, I personally believe that this offseason will tell us an awful lot about Hunter and James' future roles.
I feel like there will be a competition for the spots, regardless of what is said in the media. And whatever happens this offseason will likely show who has a leg-up overall going forward. To me, it will be the most interesting thing to note throughout training camp and the preseason, and I'd love to hear what other people think on the matter, or if there's another interesting battle.