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San Francisco 49ers position review: Running backs

The San Francisco 49ers have plenty of running backs for everyone, seriously.

Ezra Shaw

The San Francisco 49ers entered the preseason with approximately 3,472 running backs on the roster. This was well north of the 90-man roster limit, but they somehow got away with it. Eventually, they had narrowed things down to a still-sizable crop of guys that included Frank Gore, Brandon Jacobs, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Anthony Dixon and Jewel Hampton.

That's a lot of running backs.

As it happens, they ended up needing every one of them. Jacobs proved ineffective and Hunter went down with a torn Achilles and the 49ers turned to rookie LaMichael James to be the primary backup to Gore, the ageless bell cow of the San Francisco offense.

Still, the 49ers featured the No. 4 rushing attack in the league this past season at 155.7 yards per game. Below, we'll take a look at each individual player and how they performed in 2012 and then we'll take a brief look forward at the end.

Frank Gore

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2012 - Frank Gore 16 258 1214 75.9 4.7 37 8 28 234 14.6 8.4 26 1

For the sixth time in his eight-year career, Frank Gore ran for 1,000-plus yards. The only two times he missed the mark were in 2005, his rookie season and in 2010, when he missed five games due to injury.

He was the starter and he carried the ball as many times as he has in any other season. Sure, there were some more runs taken by the guys behind him, but that's because the 49ers ran more this year than in year's past. That's likely because they were better this year, meaning their offense was on the field for more plays and sustained drives led to well-fed running backs.

Gore is happy when he's fed, and so long as he produces, he'll continue to be fed. I've said all along that I don't see Gore hitting a proverbial wall and slowly embarrassing himself on the field. I think he'll look like a strong running back until the day he retires, and I don't believe that day is coming very soon. He's still "the guy" going forward.

Kendall Hunter

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2012 - Kendall Hunter 11 72 371 33.7 5.2 26 2 9 60 5.5 6.7 12 0

Hunter was expected to make a jump in ability and be a change of pace back for Gore. He was playing very well, too, up until he was injured in a team win over the New Orleans Saints. He tore his Achilles and was placed on injured reserve.

After that point, James took over (after a brief bit of Brandon Jacobs), and the 49ers didn't miss much of a beat once James got going. That being said, James didn't quite stack up to Hunter's production.

Hunter is fast, like James, but he runs inside the tackles, like Gore. He's not quite as fast as James or quite as good at trucking as Gore, but Hunter had a per-carry average of 5.2 yards when he went down with an injury. He was clearly looking at a very respectable season as a change-of-pace back and he should be the second guy behind Gore going forward.

LaMichael James

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2012 - LaMichael James 4 27 125 31.3 4.6 26 0 3 29 7.3 9.7 15 0

Had Hunter not went down with an injury, we might not have seen James in 2012. It's unclear if the 49ers wanted to proceed without both James and fellow rookie A.J. Jenkins in 2012, but James got playing time and James sat on the sidelines.

James showed some pretty insane speed on the football field, showing that it wasn't all just for show at Oregon. He didn't put up huge stats, but he did look like an exciting, dynamic player, especially in the playoffs. Unfortunately, one of James' issues was his tendency to dance behind the line of scrimmage. He danced an awful lot, and there were times when he should have just turned and ran.

One other issue was his ball handling. He had two fumbles last season and they were both maddening. He needs to secure the ball better or he'll find himself on the bench. I also didn't see a whole lot of pass blocking, but all things considered, I think we saw some exciting stuff out of him in 2012.

Anthony Dixon

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2012 - Anthony Dixon 8 21 78 9.8 3.7 9 2 0 0 0 0 0 0

I don't know why I feel like using the word "proud" to describe Dixon, but that's just what I feel. I think most of us had him off our roster projections and yet he made the roster. I was upset that he got the nod over Rock Cartwright and I do think special teams suffered, at least initially.

But by the end of the season, Dixon was one of the leaders on special teams and was actually drawing double coverage on those coverage units. On top of that, he actually made himself into a useful short-yardage back. He rushed for positive yardage and picked up first downs when the 49ers needed them more often than naught.

Most importantly, he stopped dancing around behind the line of scrimmage. Good lord that was a horrible, awful trend for him. If the 49rs value special teams, they'll keep Dixon on the roster for years to come and hopefully he'll continue to positively contribute to the running game on top of that.

Brandon Jacobs

Jacobs carried the ball a handful of times in 2012, and complained that he wasn't getting any time. He acted really lame on Twitter, got himself suspended and eventually released. But he got five carries and only picked up seven yards out of them, so it's not like the 49ers missed out on anything. He ran just like we all knew he'd run, and nothing of value, other than a roster spot, was lost.

Bruce Miller

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2012 - Bruce Miller 14 5 18 1.3 3.6 9 0 12 84 6 7 26 0

Many of us expected Bruce Miller to make the jump from really good to elite in 2012 and I personally believe he did that. He's an excellent blocker and led the way for one of the best rushing attacks in the league. He's a linebacker convert who uses leverage as well as any lead blocker in the NFL today.

That said, I think he is an under-used asset in the passing game. I think Miller has excelled every time he's had a pass thrown his way and I think it's just one more aspect of the offense that can throw a defense off balance and I'd love to see him used more that way. Unquestioned starter going forward.

Looking Forward

It's hard to see the 49ers adding another running back this offseason. Jewel Hampton is a hard-hitting and interesting prospect but I don't see a spot for him on the roster once Hunter returns. Bruce Miller is the unquestioned starter at full back, but the half back depth chart will be interesting.

Gore will be the starter, though this might be the season we finally see his carries drop for the younger guys. I legitimately wonder if the 49ers will be in a spot in the near future where they might consider trading one of their three top running backs if things seem crowded next season.

In my mind, Hunter is the backup and change of pace back, but I wonder if there's something of a competition throughout training camp and the offseason. It certainly will be nice to see a competition somewhere other than quarterback for once, though. Let's see what happens.