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Running Backs: Long look back, brief look forward

Given everything that's gone down in the last 24 hours, it seems as good a time as any to review the season that was for 49ers running backs and take a brief look ahead to what the offseason holds for the position. There have been a wide variety of suggestions ranging from Darren Sproles to looking at options in the draft to DeShaun Foster to the ever popular FREE THOMAS CLAYTON!

I think the general agreement though is that the 49ers need an able-bodied running back to sufficiently spell Frank Gore. Some teams do well with the single running back, but some of the best running backs have a solid handcuff to keep them somewhat fresh. Of course, there is also the question of what new RB coach Tom Rathman can do with Gore and whomever else is in the backfield. I'm not sure how to value a running backs coach so I almost feel like it's something that can't be factored into the equation right now, particular before we get an OC in place. Anybody have another opinion on that?

Frank Gore: While Frank the Tank did pass 1,000 yards rushing and finished with more than total 1,400 yards, it definitely was a down year for Gore. An ankle injury hobbled him for two weeks late in the season and almost prevented the third straight thousand yard season. And for the first time since 2005, Gore did not lead the team in receptions (partially due to injury, but more due to the late season emergence of Isaac Bruce).

Gore has shown himself to be a bruising back that can batter his way through defenses. The question though is what kind of wear and tear will start to show over the coming seasons? He had a horrendous injury history at Miami, but in the NFL, he's never missed more than 2 games in a season. Furthermore, after a monstrous 2006, Gore has been a little closer to average in the rushing department the last two years. Part of this is due to a lack of a consistent passing threat and offensive line issues, but it's also entirely reasonable to think a more active 2nd running back could do the trick.

DeShaun Foster: He filled in for Gore when needed and finished the season relatively strongly (at least compared to his early season exploits). When he started getting some more consistent carries he wasn't half bad. However, if Gore is healthy, would Foster get all that many carries and thus be of much use?

Foster is a free agent, but given the price, is there anybody out there that's a better bargain in free agency? Sproles, Ward and Jacobs are all going to get big dollars I'd imagine. What about a guy like Dominic Rhodes? He wasn't great, but given the struggles of Joseph Addai, Rhodes wasn't half bad. One option would be to bring back Rhodes and let him compete with Clayton and possibly a rookie running back in training camp, with the last man standing getting the backup job.

Michael Robinson: The often forgotten man. At one point there was talk of Robinson getting a crack as the back-up a year or two ago, but that never materialized. He seems to have settled into a specific role: special teams wizard, decent pass catcher and a source of frustration as far as WHY the 49ers have never let him pass the ball to keep defenses honest. I mean seriously. You've got a one-time QB who could probably still throw a tight spiral if needed. Run it once every couple weeks and teams will HAVE to play it more honestly. As small and pointless as that might be, it's one of the things that really drives me crazy. It just seems so obvious, doesn't it?

Thomas Clayton: The only 49er not to touch the field but end up in the season in review. I have no idea if he'll ever amount to anything, but it will still be interesting to see how the offseason plays out in terms of roster moves. I really wish I knew how the 49ers really felt about Clayton. If they sign a free agent or grab someone in the draft, is that it for Clayton's 49ers career? It's a bit of a mind-boggling situation. I read somewhere that Clayton did get some offers from other teams during the season, but there was nothing specific detailed. Maybe that was just idle speculation. Who knows.

Looking Ahead
This review really is more about looking to the future. There is certainly some talent on the free agent market, but aside from the high-end options, not much blows my mind. You've got Rhodes as I mentioned above. There's Correll Buckhalter, who averaged 4.9 yards a carry in relief of Brian Westbrook, and actually had the exact same number of carries as Foster. What about Bay Area product JJ Arrington? He averaged 6 yards on 31 carries and was a decent kickoff return man. And there is another division rival, Maurice Morris. All options, but the question is how good?

In terms of the draft, I think it's safe to say the 49ers won't go running back in the first two or three rounds. One name to keep an eye out for is Rashad Jennings of Liberty. He's 6-1, 234lbs, bringing a little more size than Frank and right now Scouts, Inc. ranks him 11th among running backs and 138th overall. Although that would project to the 4th round, obviously running backs often go higher. But maybe if he were around in the 4th he might be worth snagging? Really it's all just spit-balling. If you use a 4th round pick on a guy, you definitely are expecting something out of him.

After the jump I've listed the top 15 running backs, with their overall ranking in parentheses.

1. Knowshon Moreno, Georgia (18)
2. Chris Wells, Ohio State (22)
3. LeSean McCoy, Pittsburgh (25)
4. CJ Spiller, Clemson (43)
5. Shonn Greene, Iowa (48)
6. Javon Ringer, Michigan State (77)
7. James Davis, Clemson (82)
8. Andre Brown, North Carolina State (111)
9. Jeremiah Johnson, Oregon (123)
10. Devin Moore, Wyoming (128)
11. Rashad Jennings, Liberty (138)
12. Kory Sheets, Purdue (148)
13. Cedric Peerman, Virginia
14. Arian Foster, Tennessee
15. Brad Lester, Auburn