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49ers Halfbacks: Long Look Back, Brief Look Forward

The backbone of the 49ers offense for the last nine seasons or so - the halfback - is a position the 49ers have been spoiled on for awhile now. Unfortunately, it has lead a few coaches now into a false sense of security and was the crux for Mike Singletary's "power running attack, fysical smash-mouth football" offense and seems to have done more harm than good in the long run. That's not fair, of course, and it's still a strong position going forward, but one the 49ers will be looking to add to this offseason through either free agency or the draft.

Frank Gore

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2010 - Frank Gore 11 203 853 77.5 4.2 64 3 46 452 41.1 9.8 41 2

It is an absolute travesty that Frank Gore's season was cut short with a hip injury. The man was on his way to a fifth straight 1,000 yard rushing season and fell just short with 853 yards, with another 452 through the air. Gore wouldn't tell you as much, though - he'll only reference how disappointed he was to not be able to help the team get some wins and make a push for the playoffs.

Gore was the base of the 49ers offense, and the team jumped on his back and followed him into that cloud of dust that he was doomed to fall into on just about every play. There were flashes of something great, and 49ers fans salivated the first time rookie left guard Mike Iupati opened up a big hole for him. It was supposed to be a precursor for the future of the 49ers, but the injury changed it all.

There's not a lot to be said about Gore of this past season. I'll cover him a bit more when we look ahead after the jump, but suffice to say he looked just as good as I thought he was going to. The previous year, he was a scoring machine and last year, he was the 49ers leading rusher and receiver at the time of his injury. Pretty indicative of what he can do.

After the jump, we take a look at the other halfback options on the 49ers' roster, 2011 free agents for the position and of course, the 2011 NFL draft ...

Brian Westbrook

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2010 - Brian Westbrook 13 77 340 26.2 4.4 30 4 16 150 11.5 9.4 62 1

Brian Westbrook erased a lot of doubts as to whether or not he's still got it though he did not, unfortunately, placate anybody concerned with his durability. This is because the 49ers didn't work him for any extended amount of time. At the beginning of the season, it was the same old song and dance. Jimmy Raye was probably going to get Westbrook involved this week, then the next and after he was gone, it was Mike Johnson who was frustrated with Raye's lack of utilizing him, and surely this would be the week we'd see this dynamic offensive playmaker on the field.

It took a Frank Gore hip injury to get Westbrook any significant playing time, and he came in and played admirably. He was treated to a game in which he had more carries come his way than any in his entire career, and he repaid the 49ers back with stellar play at times reminiscent of his Pro Bowl past.

The problem was, at times it wasn't exactly reminiscent of the aforementioned Pro Bowl caliber player he once was. He's jut not the guy he once was, but I think he 100% fit the bill for what he was advertised as when Singletary brought him in: a backup. When the starter went down, he came in and rushed for 340 yards and picked up 150 in receptions to top it off. Just take his rushing total and put it on Gore's, and if it's a decent number when your starter goes to IR, then your backup has done his job as advertised.

Even after Gore went down though, it was still frustrating at times to see how the offense would utilize Westbrook. I'll detail below just how much I love me some Anthony Dixon, but I can't deny that he was taking some carries away at inopportune times. Westbrook would gain eight, ten and twelve yards at a time and then the 49ers would cap him off at around sixty yards even though it was blatantly clear he could go on. There was simply questionable usage of hi throughout the entirety of the season.

Anthony Dixon

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2010 - Anthony Dixon 14 70 237 16.9 3.4 34 2 5 11 .800 2.2 8 0

Anthony Dixon is a very hard player to judge, especially coming out of the sixth round. Early on, he seemed to struggle with the level of talent he was facing, and his shifty style led to him getting caught and dragged down by players who had, quite simply, seen it before. But as the carries increased, his style seemed to benefit him more and more; he legitimately provided a different feel than both Frank Gore and Brian Westbrook, and he always - always - had his eyes on the end zone. I will say that I absolutely love his enthusiasm, and to those of you who couldn't attend a game: you definitely missed out on some prime dance moves. I don't know how much they show on television, but that guy is gettin' down at any given moment on the sidelines.

He took some carries from the oft-injured Brian Westbrook for the simple act of keeping him fresh and he seemed to play well in those times, but he still lacks that sure-fire push into the holes the offensive line makes for him and doesn't possess elite speed or power, at least from the limited sample size given to us. There's a lot of potential there, again, especially coming out of the sixth round, but it's a roll of the dice as to whether or not he can be a feature back in the league.

Perhaps the unnerving thing about Dixon to me is the fact that, around the league, teams seem to be finding young stud running backs all over the place. Players are coming in off the bench and going into absolute beast mode and I find myself wondering "Why not me? Why can't we have nice things?" It might be an unfair comparison, but it's still one I can't help but draw. The verdict is still out on Dixon and his role going forward, but he'll get as fair a chance as any to show his stuff in 2011 and, barring an unforeseen call from a higher power, will look to do so.

Looking Forward

Frank Gore is the guy moving forward, and nothing else really makes sense. He's ahead of schedule on his hip surgery recovery, and can begin running again in about two weeks time. Some people will throw about the trade talk, and I'd like to kill that right now if at all possible. It's obvious that Gore still is one of the top backs in the league, providing the injury doesn't set him back. That same injury would limit his trade value regardless, so not much would be garnered in return. Why trade one of the team's best offensive weapons who can be the feature back in just about every offense when the 49ers don't even have a quarterback not named David Carr on the roster?

So Gore is in, and behind him - that's where the question marks arise. Look for Dixon to get another extended period of playing time in the preseason, and to garner some carries in the season. How many carries is the only question, which is predicated on just who the actual backup will be. Brian Westbrook is set to be a free agent and will probably look for a little bit more stability and might come highly sought after following his work this past season. It is my belief that somebody new will be brought in and that Westbrook is on his way out. It could work out a couple ways, with Dixon being the backup or third stringer depending on the scenario.

Free Agency

There are a couple big names that I'm going to avoid discussing due to the extreme liklihood that these guys don't even consider San Francisco. Arian Foster is likely to be re-signed by the Texans as a restricted free agent, while DeAngelo Williams will probably look for a place to start and get paid outside of Carolina. Ahmad Bradshaw is another guy who I won't really look at, as I see him signing in New York again. That being said, let's look ahead.

Darren Sproles, San Diego Chargers: This guy is basically the very definition of a good backup. He's also well-liked and respected by basically everyone I've ever talked to that knows who he is. "That fast little guy? I hate it when we have to play him!" seems to be the general consensus, and that's probably because that fast little guy can beat you on the ground, through the air and on returns. He is the perfect security blanket for younger QBs and can carry the load if he really needs to. He was sort of phased out in San Diego for Tolbert, who became a rumblin', stumblin' bumblin' machine.

Sproles will likely opt out of San Diego this year and I consider the 49ers a strong candidate to retain his services if they can. There is a lot he can do for the 49ers, and he would probably immediately take over the punt return duties as well.

Ronnie Brown, Miami Dolphins: He hasn't been playing as well as he should be, but he's basically a backup that any team in the league would benefit from having. I think the Dolphins re-sign Ricky Williams and Brown will have the opportunity to take his talents elsewhere. He can run and he's got good hands receiving out of the backfield, and that's important for the 49ers.

Michael Bush, Oakland Raiders: Darren McFadden blew things up this year, and Bush may be on his way out of Oakland. I'd still rate the Raiders as his top landing spot in 2011, but it's definitely possible that the 49ers like what they see and bring him in as a backup option.

LeRon McClain, Baltimore Ravens: I took a look at McClain in my fullback post two days ago, and I'm going to mention him briefly here. McClain isn't a halfback, but if the discussion is mostly about who will get the carriers behind Frank Gore in lieu of Westbrook, I have to think McClain becomes even more of an attractive option for the 49ers. Dixon is technically the backup, but McClain gets the carries and touches he oh-so-desires while fulfilling a need for the 49ers as a blocker and WCO fullback.

2011 NFL Draft

I'm not privy to much information regarding the running backs in this year's draft. In all honesty, there's far too much to consider when it comes to quarterbacks, cornerbacks, linebackers and things of that nature, I could hardly name you six or seven college halfbacks. If the 49ers draft one of these guys, it will either be someone who fell big time in the third round, or again looking to the fifth and sixth rounds and hoping to strike gold.

Here is Draft Tek's feature running back big board, and here is their change of pace back big board.

QB | HB | FB | TE | WR | OT | G | C | DE | NT | OLB | ILB | CB | S | K/P | KR/PR