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Running Backs: Long look back, brief look forward

The running back position has provided an amazing amount of debate and discussion given who the #1 guy is.  The 49ers have a guy who could potentially go down as one of the top 2 or 3 running backs in franchise history, and question marks continue to arise.  It's an amazing amount of debate, but it's not surprising, and it's not unwarranted for a variety of reasons.  What used to be referred to as running back by committee (RBBC) is now simply a "two-headed monster."  There are plenty of teams with a primary running back, but a lot of teams are moving towards multiple "primary" backs given the wear and tear that comes with the position.

The 49ers find themselves in an intriguing position as it relates to C.J. Spiller given their kick return needs as well.  Spiller will find himself mentioned in the special teams brief look forward, but obviously he'd play a role as a running back (if he were drafted of course).

Frank Gore

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2009 - Frank Gore 14 229 1120 80 4.9 80 10 52 406 29 7.8 48 3

Frank Gore is coming off his franchise record fourth straight 1,000 yard season, a career high in touchdowns, and last night was his second career Pro Bowl appearance.  Gore is a work-horse for this team, but since his career year in 2006, his carries per game has gone down.  After a career high 312 carries in 2006, the team seems to be trying to lessen his load to keep him from breaking down sooner rather than later.  I'd imagine the decreased per game load also has to do with the one season flirtation with Mike Martz and the fact that the team was pretty bad in 2007 and 2008 (not quite so bad in 2009).

The big question with Frank Gore is how long he can last.  It's not like he's putting up huge carry totals.  However, he has battled porous offensive lines and a variety of ailments that seem intent on bringing this particular superman back to earth.  If the offensive line were beefed back up and became a solid unit, would that be enough to extend Gore's career?  Or is he such a hard runner that even a big-time o-line wouldn't help enough?  It's amazing this is even an issue for a soon-to-be 27-year old running back.  The average NFL career is rather short, so it really shouldn't be so amazing.  Do people have their own personal guesstimate on how many seasons Frank the Tank has left in his tank?

Glen Coffee

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2009 - Glen Coffee 13 83 226 17.4 2.7 17 1 11 76 5.8 6.9 12 0

I don't know if I'd classify Glen Coffee as a "controversial" draft pick, but there was certainly a whole lot of debate about the merit of the decision.  And while one year does not make for a career, Coffee certainly didn't win supporters with his 2008 performance.  Coffee basically had two real starts and one quasi start on the season.  In week 4 and 5 he started in place of an injured Frank Gore.  In week 3 he replaced Gore after one carry.  That week 3 appearance was a quasi-start because he got pretty much all the carries in place of Gore, but obviously he didn't come in with a starting mentality.  In those three games, Coffee averaged 2.83 yards per carry with 1 touchdown.  At times he showed some skills, but it certainly could have been better.

I'm certainly fine with a rookie struggling.  It happens, and I'm willing to see how Coffee rebounds in year 2.  The big question is what happens if the 49ers do in fact draft someone like C.J. Spiller?  Obviously the team could roll out additional backs, as many teams do.  They wouldn't be the first team with two alternating back-ups at running back.  Nonetheless, the team could face a question of what becomes of Coffee.  If the team thinks Gore is going to wear down sooner rather than later, are they going to give Coffee the big carries and use a guy like Spiller as more of a speed option?  Obviously this depends on how the 49ers execute their draft, and even potentially free agency.  But it's something we all certainly should consider.

Michael Robinson

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2009 - Michael Robinson 13 3 2 .200 .700 4 0 6 24 1.8 4 8 0

Robinson is the forgotten man among the 49ers running backs.  He's a special teams whiz, but his use in the 49ers offense took a sizable dip this season.  The team tried to use Glen Coffee as the primary backup, and Robinson's numbers suffered.  Of course, he hasn't exactly been a workhorse for the 49ers, but they went down nonetheless.

What has bugged me about the team's use of Michael Robinson in the offense is what they could do with this kind of athlete in the Wildcat offense.  A team that runs one Wildcat play each week is never going to be effectively using the Wildcat offense.  A team like the Dolphins has invested time and effort into it and has seen some level of success.  If the 49ers want to try and use it, why not mix in more throw options for Robinson?  After all, Robinson was a college QB at Penn State, even if not a superstar at the position.  I'd feel more comfortable with him back there throwing than with Frank Gore making the throw option.  So why not try that more often?

I love his special team skills and think he's a valuable member of the 49ers.  However, the team needs to figure out his role on the offense.  This gets even more complicated if someone like C.J. Spiller ends up with the 49ers.  Again, it may never happen, but if it did, it would effect several players on the roster.

Moran Norris

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2009 - Moran Norris 11 14 41 3.7 2.9 15 1 7 31 2.8 4.4 11 0

After a season in exile in Detroit, Moran Norris was brought back into the fold with a three year contract.  Over the course of the season, I found myself overlooking Norris quite a bit.  It was always easier following the ball to Gore and then up the middle, and not really being able to assess Norris' impact.  I recall he had his struggles at times, and I know that there was a lot of annoyance in the game threads with his general performance.  I'd like to hear more about that from people who have a particularly strong opinion (or at least somewhat organized opinion) about Moran Norris.

Brit Miller

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2009 - Brit Miller 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Miller is a fullback who was on the 49ers practice squad for a good chunk of the season.  He was activated to the 53-man roster in December and was a fairly solid special teams player for the final 5 weeks of the season.  With Jeff Ulbrich retired, I'd guess Miller has a potential role for the near future with the 49ers.  The question is if he can show some skills at fullback and eventually unseat Moran Norris.  Or maybe the 49ers just want to roll him out on special teams.

Looking Forward
The 49ers have a variety of options to consider in free agency and the draft.  Given their needs at kick returner, it makes their decision-making process all the more interesting.

Free Agency
There are some talented running backs in free agency, but few that would seem to fit the 49ers needs.  I'll throw out a mix of names, even if they're not likely to end up in San Francisco.

Leon Washington: Assuming he fully heals, Washington is the free agent that would certainly fit the bill for what the 49ers need.  A kick returner and change of pace option in the backfield.  Of course, I'm especially curious to see if the Jets decide to get rid of Thomas Jones and go with the duo of Washington and Shonn Greene.

Ronnie Brown: There's no way Brown ends up on the 49ers, but I thought he was worth mentioning because of the option he has in his contract.  If the owners and players come up with a new CBA, Brown becomes a free agent.  If 2010 is uncapped, Brown has a $5 million option that would vest with Miami.

Jerome Harrison: I list Harrison not because the 49ers will consider him, but because he had such a bizarre finish to his quasi-walk year.  Through week 14, Harrison's top 2 performances were 121 yards and 52 yards (weeks 4 and 3 respectively).  The final 3 weeks?  286 yards, 148 yards, 127 yards.  Are you kidding me?  He's a restricted free agent with no new CBA (UFA otherwise), but I thought it was amusing to mention.

Darren Sproles: Sproles is in the RFA/UFA hole depending on the CBA.  The mighty-mite would provide some serious spark to the return game, and as a change of pace back.  However, barring a CBA change he's going to be back in San Diego.  I don't see the 49ers, or most any other team forking over the type of long-term deal and draft picks that would be necessary to get him away as an RFA.

Pierre Thomas (RFA)
Chester Taylor
Willie Parker
Le'Ron McClain (RFA/UFA)
Cadillac Williams
LenDale White (RFA/UFA)
Jerious Norwood (RFA/UFA)

2010 NFL Draft
The folk at Draft Tek have grouped the running backs into two specific categories: General Purpose and Change of Pace.  I'll list both with Change of Pace first since we all know the name people are looking at:

Overall Rank Running Back - Change of Pace School
C.J. Spiller Clemson
Jahvid Best California
Joe McKnight USC
Darius Marshall Marshall
Deji Karim Southern Illinois
LaMarcus Coker Hampton
Brandon James Florida
Pat Paschall North Dakota State
Michael Smith Arkansas
Shawnbrey McNeal SMU
Brandon West Western Michigan



Overall Rank Running Back - General Purpose School
Jonathan Dwyer Georgia Tech
Ryan Mathews Fresno State
Anthony Dixon Mississippi State
Toby Gerhart Stanford
Ben Tate Auburn
Montario Hardesty Tennessee
Joique Bell Wayne State
Charles Scott LSU
James Starks Buffalo
Chris Brown Oklahoma
Andre Anderson Tulane
Keith Toston Oklahoma State
Andre Dixon Connecticut
LeGarrette Blount Oregon
Javarris James Miami
Joseph Turner TCU
Stafon Johnson USC
Lonyae Miller Fresno State
Roy Upchurch Alabama
Keiland Williams LSU
Brandon Minor Michigan
Toney Baker North Carolina State
Mikell Simpson Virginia