The San Francisco 49ers drafted Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde last month, giving them as much running back depth as anybody in the NFL. Behind Gore, the team has Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Marcus Lattimore, Carlos Hyde, and Jewel Hampton.
The team has the depth to spell Gore, but it remains to be seen how much time Gore will be willing to sit in 2014. Of course, Coach Harbaugh and his staff might force Gore into fewer carries, and if the team is winning, I don't think we'd see many complaints. We saw some questionable decisions with regard to carries last season, most notably against the Colts, but that was more a basic abandoning of the run game than anything else.
With the 2014 season still in front of us, I figured I'd open the door to some predictions as to how many carries Frank Gore has in 2014. Part of that obviously depends on how many running backs are actually back there behind him, with LaMichael James being one of the big question marks. I do think the team will try and trade him before the end of training camp, but I also think that will only happen if they find a punt and kick return option that inspires some measure of confidence for them. Even if James sticks around this season, I still see him focusing on the return work, and getting very few carries.
Here's how running back carries broke down last season. Colin Kaepernick was second in total rushing attempts with 92:
Frank Gore: 276
Kendall Hunter: 78
Anthony Dixon: 28
LaMichael James: 12
Over the course of his 9-year career, Frank Gore has had the following carry totals (games played in parenthesis):
2005: 127 (14)
2006: 312 (16)
2007: 260 (15)
2008: 240 (14)
2009: 229 (14)
2010: 203 (11)
2011: 282 (16)
2012: 258 (16)
2013: 276 (16)
Aside from his rookie year, when he played behind Kevan Barlow, and 2010, when he busted his hip, Gore has never had fewer than 229 carries. In a full 16-game season, he's never had fewer than 258 carries. Last season was his third most carries ever, and he saw his yards per carry dip down to a career low 4.1.
I don't know that it necessarily was due to his work load, but the team had options behind him. In 2011, Kendall Hunter had 112 rushing attempts, which was the most ever for a Frank Gore backup. He was on pace for 104 carries in 2012 when he ruptured his Achilles tendon in late November. He return in 2013, but one has to wonder how close or far he was to 100 percent last season. He will head into 2014 with a second full offseason between him and his Achilles injury. Maybe he takes a step forward this year. Even if he doesn't get huge carry numbers, due to the greater running back depth, he could still be a solid presence.
I see the 2014 running back depth chart looking something like this. Frank Gore is your starter. Kendall Hunter and Marcus Lattimore split carries as that first guy on the field behind Gore. Carlos Hyde then operates as the short yardage back, providing a little more oomph than Anthony Dixon. I see LMJ either getting dealt, or focusing primarily on return work, and I see the team trying to get Jewel Hampton back on to the practice squad.
With all that in mind, I think Gore ends up down in the 200-225 carry mark. And if they are really committed to moving on from him in 2015, maybe Gore ends up more in the 175-200 mark. If Lattimore's knee holds up, this team has plenty of options to mix it up on the ground. Even with all the weapons in the passing game, this team can still boast a thoroughly dominant rushing attack.
How do you see the ground game playing out?