Ninjames ran a real good article on the 49ers running back position a couple weeks ago; you can click on the link here. I decided to give my take on the position, what we need to do in order to upgrade, if anything. How Frank Gore fits into the equation both in 2011 and longer term. And, whether or not Anthony Dixon has a future as an every down RB in the NFL.
After the jump I will also focus on what options are available to the 49ers in the draft and free agency.
Frank Gore has to be considered one of the best 49ers RBs of all-time. He is right up there with the "million dollar backfield" and Roger Craig. However, he has had an issue remaining healthy, and when he goes down the 49ers entire offense suffers. Gore is also in the back end of his career as the shelf life for an NFL RB isn't too long. The time has for San Francisco to begin preparation for an eventual replacement. In fact, some may argue that the 49ers should gaug the trade market for Gore right now, while he still has value. I am not completely against that idea, however, it would be extremely difficult for San Francisco to justify trading their best offensive weapon. Additionally, I am not sure what the vaue of an aging RB with injury concerns would be; probably a 2nd round pick at best. I think the most logical conclusion would be th 49ers keeping Frank Gore as their primary RB for the 2011 season, but also looking at exterior options to eventually replace him.
Anthony Dixon showed a lot of flashes during the NFL pre-season, but so did Glenn Coffee a couple years back. I don't believe that th pre-season is a great indicator of success moving forward. That said, Frank Gore did not play in the pre-season, so Dixon was going up against other teams #1 defenses most of the time. Moving into the regular season Dixon struggled a great deal. Too many times I saw him hesitate in the back field, instead of turning up field. That is a major issue that he is going to have to address moving forward. Dixon needs to understand that he is a straight forward, through the lanes runner; not a Chris Johnson type of back. If Tom Rathman can teach him this, I believe that Dixon has a nice future ahead of himself. However, i am not ready to annoint him the heir apparent to Frank Gore at the RB position; and the 49ers need to find another back to vie for playing time behind Frank Gore.
So what are the 49er options. As is the case in most drafts, there are "diamonds in the rough" that could be found outside of the first 2 rounds. At this point the 49ers have too many holes to fill outside of drafting a RB with one of their first two picks. So lets take a look at the RB position in the 2011 NFL draft, outside of those first 2 rounds. Now some of you may not agree with these projections, however, i have to utilize a platform for my predictions and NFL Draft Site seems to have the best gauge of prospect rankings.
3rd Round: DeMarco Murray, Daniel Thomas, Jordan Todman, Kendall Hunter, Shane Vereen
4th Round: Delone Carter, Roy Helu Jr, Anthony Allen, Noel Devine
5th Round: Darren Evans, Jacquizz Rodgers
6th Round: Da'Rel Scott, Stevan Ridley, Jamie Harper, Evan Royster
7th Round: Dion Lewis, Derrick Locke
There are a lot of nice options here for the 49ers. I think that my "bro-mance" with Shane Vereen has been well noted here on Niners Nation; and i will continue that. If Vereen does indeed fall to the 49ers in the 3rd round, I believe he would be extremely hard to pass up on. In fact, when both Jahvid Best and Vereen were playing at CAL i believed, as i do now, that Vereen will be a better NFL player than Best. He has the break away ability, field site, and strength to make an immediate impact from day one. The other 3rd round options really do not excite me because i don't see a dramatic drop off from them to the 7th round options. In between, however, there remains a nice amount of options. I really like Delone Carter from Syracuse in the 4th, Quizz Rodgers from Oregon State in the 5th, and Jamie Harper from Clemson in the 6th. Additionally, i believe that both Dion Lewis and Derrick Locke would make for steals in the 7th. My ideal scenario would be to pick up Vereen in the 3rd, but if that doesn't happen Carter and Rodgers would be nice later round picks. That said, I do not see Rodgers falling out of the 3rd round, if he does it is a no-brainer.
Free Agent Options: Darren Sproles, Ricky Williams, Jerious Norwood, Kevin Smith, Brandon Jackson, Joseph Addai, Cadillac Williams
San Francisco is not going to find a future starting RB in free agency, nor should they be looking there. What they will find is a player that can help shoulder the load with Frank Gore and compete with Anthony Dixon for carries. Darren Sproles would seem like a nice 3rd down RB options, he is a good receiver out of the back field and can break the long runs. However, he is not a player that could take over full-time duty if Gore gets injured. Also, considering his special teams talent, Sproles may demand a higher asking price than the 49ers are willing to offer. Ricky Williams would be a great stop gap option for the 49ers behind Gore, i just think that he would demand more rushes than the 49ers can offer. I do not want to see another Brian Westbrook situation play out with the 49ers. It is not fare to proven NFL RBs to come into a situation where they barely touch the ball and don't get consistent carries. In my opinion, Jerious Norwood would be the 49ers best option here. He has the ability to catch the ball, and can help take the load off of Gore. Additionally, Norwood, who is coming off an injury, is not in a situation to demand a multi year contract. In fact, San Francisco could be the ideal scenario for him. Sign a one year contract, get carries behind Gore and build up his value for the 2012 free agent session.
Trade Options: Tashard Choice, Michael Bush, Steve Slaton
Two of these players (Choice and Bush) are probably going to require a 2nd or 3rd round pick and the other (Slaton) has regressed a great deal since his breakout rookie season. If the 49ers could find a way to get either Choice or Bush with a 3rd round pick, they may have to think long and hard about it. Tashard Choice will be a very good starting NFL RB for some team in the future. He has the quickness and the ability to succeed in the NFL, his performance with Dallas supports this claim. Michael Bush, on the other hand, has been a real solid contributor for Oakland but has a lot of major injury concerns. Bush would have been a 1st round pick if he had not gotten injured his final season with Louisville, and has showed flashes of brilliance in Oakland. The question is; are the 49ers willing to risk a 3rd round pick on a player with so many injury concerns? I am not too sure of that
My Conclusion: It would appear that the draft is the 49ers best option in terms of the RB position. If they can bring in a RB that can rush the ball between 6-10 times a game, compete with Anthony Dixon and take carries away from Gore I would be extremely happy. I believe that Shane Vereen is that man, it just depends on how the draft plays out above the 3rd round. Some mocks have Vereen going in the 2nd, others have him falling to the 4th. Additionally, the 49ers have to look at immediate needs and if they don't get a combination of pass rusher and corner in the 1st two rounds, they are going to have to look here for that. If the draft plays out right and they get that combination, I could easily see them swooping up Vereen. That said, I don't believe that it is do or die with the CAL standout. San Francisco has a nice amount of options at the RB position after the 3rd round.