In our continuing run through random features at the major sports websites, today we see Scouts Inc going all cartoon character on us. The scouts decided to rank "all 64" running backs in the league. The reason I put that in quotation marks is because they have missed some running backs, notably our very own Michael Robinson. Of course Robinson is a 3rd string back and not a huge contributor in the running game. So I'm guessing this is more along the lines of all starting and 2nd string running backs, or something like that.
This post was inspired in part by the lack of discussion in 49er land about the potentially great running back tandem the 49ers will put on display. Of course their production will depend in part on the play of the offensive line and if both guys can remain healthy. However, in looking at the recent past, the last time the 49ers had two solid running backs at the same time was 2001-2003 when Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow were carrying the load. Two of those three teams went to the playoffs and while it was more than the running game that did that, a great running game can certainly help. Gore's first year as a starter the team shocked many by finishing 7-9 as Gore finished with the best rushing season in franchise history. Last year Gore struggled and it's kind of amazing he finished with 1,102 yards considering the performance of the rest of the offense. The 49ers have plenty of other worries but to point out the dramatic improvement at running back, consider just the numbers. Last season, DeShaun Foster had more rushing yards than the combined rushing yards over the last two years of any 49ers rusher not named Frank Gore. The last two seasons have seen the non-Gore's rush for 852 total yards. Foster has averaged 884 yards the last three seasons. Now Foster will be in a different position in 2008 coming off the bench to spell Gore. However it will be interesting to see if this reduced playing time keeps both guys fresher over the course of the season. Maurice Hicks and Michael Robinson have done what they could as backups, but let's be honest, they are not the answer at RB #2 right now. Robinson could very well develop into a solid backup, but for now, Foster is a considerably better option.
So what do the scout's think? In discussing the backs, they ranked them and then went with a superhero motif giving a superpower and kryptonite:
7. Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers
Superpower -- We're not sure we have seen a back who is so explosive yet has dealt with so many injuries. Gore shows exceptional quickness to and through the hole and can plant and change directions quickly. He runs with good balance and is tough to get off his feet. His hands are an asset, and he likely will catch close to 100 balls in 2008 in the scheme of new offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
Kryptonite -- Durability. Gore has had two major knee injuries dating back to college, and in the NFL he has been nicked up often. We wonder about his longevity as a feature back. The 49er did not run as hard last season and became frustrated with his role in the offense. He needs to mature and become a more effective leader.
1 spot ahead -- Joseph Addai
1 spot behind: -- Marion Barber
42. DeShaun Foster, San Francisco 49ers
Superpower -- He is a talented, experienced backup who will bring good production and versatility to the 49ers' backfield. He can be very effective in a rotation or on third down. Foster possesses good hands as a receiver out of the backfield, and he can stay in and pass protect effectively. He still has good strength and quickness to be effective running between the tackles or on the outside.
Kryptonite -- Ball security always has been an issue with him, and he is starting to lose some of the elusiveness for which he was known coming out of college. He also gets upright when running inside. He is not a guy you want carrying the load full time, but he still can produce in a variety of situations.
1 spot ahead -- Matt Forte, Bears rookie
1 spot behind -- Ray Rice, Ravens rookie
I think it's difficult to predict exactly how the Gore/Foster randem will work over the course of the season. They're both highly talented running backs. Foster has played in a semi-platoon situation with DeAngelo Williams, but when healthy he was the #1 guy in that platoon. So he'll have to get used to not being the man. So what kind of production will we see from this duo? Since the end of the Hearst/Barlow duo, the 49ers best rushing season was 2006 when the team rushed for 2,172 yards, thanks in large part to Frank Gore's obscene season. Once again, the offensive line play and production of the passing game will play a large part in this. For now though, let's just look at the running backs in a vacuum. So what kind of production do you see?