The San Francisco 49ers relied heavily on running back Frank Gore in 2011, as they have in every season since he was drafted. Many wondered if the team should trade him during the offseason, but Jim Harbaugh quickly killed that talk by bringing in a power running attack which, unlike the attacks in previous years, would be malleable and adaptable in any given situation, but with the same focal point of Gore handling the bulk of the action.
Gore played very well when healthy, aside from a couple bad games, but was certainly banged up all year. The biggest problem with the running game, to me, was that the 49ers decided to get cute with it and got in a bit over their heads, eventually trying to act unconventional and different so much that it became commonplace and predictable. Shotgun formations were no longer a point in which you could surprise a defense with a draw to Gore, because defenses were no longer surprised by it. Look no further than the NFC Championship game for proof of this.
That being said, a fuller and more innovative approach to the running game isn't the only improvement the 49ers can make to better support Alex Smith and Co. in 2012, they can also go after another player. While Kendall Hunter is promising and Gore looks like he's got another season in him, there are opportunities to improve at the position in a way that really fits this team, and after the jump I'll tell you why I'm after Peyton Hillis, pending free agent of the Cleveland Browns.
Perhaps that's not the Peyton you were expecting, but to me, he's the perfect fit. Hillis is a power running back who had a monster season in 2010, before being simultaneously struck down by the dreaded Madden Curse and the realization that he does in fact play for the Cleveland Browns. First, there were a lot of issues with his contract, and then he was "sick," which led to many question whether or not he was faking an injury.
I was covering the team for SB Nation Cleveland at this point and it's my opinion that he was legitimately sick. Eventually, the team had some sort of impromptu meeting with Hillis in which they tried to figure out what was up so they could pull together and start winning football games, but again, do remember we're talking about the Browns here. I don't see that kind of issue in the San Francisco locker room, under any circumstances. Not to insult Pat Shurmur, but that's something that Jim Harbaugh would not allow.
Anyway, Hillis did eventually suffer an injury to his hamstring, something that can happen to any player at any time. With hamstring injuries, it's important to have plenty of rest because the slightest strain can re-tweak it and further put you out if it doesn't heal 100%. So Hillis returned to practice, and just one day after doing extremely light running, the Browns set him to work on some stuff that was far too intensive for his injury. He re-tweaked it, again, something that can happen to any player in any situation when not fully healed.
In short, I don't have injury concerns for Hillis, and would expect him to be healthy once coming to San Francisco. Another reason for the decreased production for Hillis is the fact that the Browns seemed as though they were going a different direction before the season really got underway. With Colt McCoy as the starting quarterback, the team hit the ground ... throwing the football. Hillis, while 100 percent healthy, was essentially sidelined so McCoy could throw to guys like Mohamed Massaquoi and Greg Little.
Really, the thought was absurd. The offense changed after a monster season, and that was the beginning that sent it all into turmoil. To me, Hillis is a power runner that would greatly compliment Hunter and be a good fit to be the bell cow of the 49ers' offense in 2012, preferably with Gore still on the roster.
Another thing that really does swing in Hillis' favor is the thought that he might come cheap. He did have a poor season and there's no way to get around that fact. The running back market also seems a bit soft and teams could be wary of signing him for big dollars. And the best thing about that is the fact that it fits the model that the 49ers embrace in free agency perfectly. San Francisco has always signed the guy who isn't necessarily the top name, but could come at a good price. Hillis fits that bill, along with guys like Justin Smith and Carlos Rogers.
My vision is that Hillis would be the bell-cow of the offense and a legitimate threat for a defense on any given play. He's be the starter, with Gore continuing to play out his contract in San Francisco as the backup (with a healthy amount of carries) and Hunter as the change-of-pace back. It's hard to envision Hunter as the bell cow of the offense, but I daresay a backfield with Hillis and Hunter is more dynamic than a backfield with Gore and Hunter, for many reasons.
While the free agent pool won't be huge for running backs (expect Ray Rice, LeGarrett Blount and Matt Forte to get huge contracts where they are), I'm betting San Francisco could make an attractive offer to Hillis early on and acquire his services. I certainly don't see him re-signing with the Cleveland Browns and, wouldn't you know it, a team that just appeared in the NFC Championship game after a 13-3 regular season certainly could be an attractive destination for free agents. I'd also point to the 49ers' players' unwavering support for Kyle Williams as another reason a maligned player such as Hillis might find a visit to the bay attractive.