Almost three years ago I wrote an article, my first one for 49ersnews.com actually, discussing the potential for the 49ers to have a mixed backfield and use a running back by committee approach. The thought was that Frank Gore was beginning to get up there in years and carries through his career so why not share the load some with a capable backup in Glen Coffee. Well, that didn’t turn out so well, as Coffee only played that one season, saw limited action and subsequently retired after his rookie season.
This season the 49ers have several pieces they can utilize in the running game without running Gore into the ground. They have two new additions this year with the signing of Brandon Jacobs and the drafting of LaMichael James out of Oregon. These two are not only at opposing points in their careers with James just beginning his and Jacobs coming off a Super Bowl victory and nearing the end of his own career. They are also opposites in their size and style of play. James, the much smaller, quicker and more elusive back who is also very good at catching passes out of the backfield can be a threat for a big play any time he touches the ball. Jacobs on the other hand is oddly tall for a running back, standing 6’4’’, he uses his size and power to break through the defensive line and just plow over people. Each of these players has a place on this team. James because of his potential will get a chance to prove his worth and possibly make a case to be the long term future back that replaces Frank Gore. Jacobs has clearly proven he can get the job done, and while he certainly will not get double digit carries often, if at all, I believe he will be valuable in short yardage and goal line situations.
The next two running backs in contention for playing time are second year man Kendall Hunter and third year man Anthony Dixon. They are similarly compared to Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James in that Hunter is a smaller, speedy player and Dixon is a bigger, more powerful player. Hunter played well as a complimentary back to Frank Gore last year in most aspects. He was the change of pace back the 49ers have needed for years to go along side Gore. Although the team drafted James this year, who is remarkably similar in size and style of play to Kendall Hunter, I would expect Hunter to get a decent workload this season as the 49ers already know what he brings to the offense.
Dixon is really a long shot of all these running backs to see significant playing time and possibly to even make the team. While he is a big and powerful running back, he has not yet used his size to his advantage. He too often tap dances behind the line of scrimmage before trying to hit the hole and break free, causing him to be brought down too easily. He is a useful special team’s player and that may help him have a shot at making the team. But with the depth and skill the team already has at the running back position, including both Hunter and James who can play on the special teams if necessary, I would not be surprised to see Dixon not make the final 53 man roster.
All of these running backs will be fighting for a piece of the action behind Frank Gore. Gore has been a real pro throughout his career and although he seems shy and reluctant to try and hog the spotlight, 49ers fans and players alike know what he brings to the team. With the help the team brought in, Gore will not be expected to be the bell cow this season but I have little doubt he carries the majority of the workload. Gore brings it every game and the coaches know that he can be dependable in all aspects of his position.
This 49ers logjam at running back will be interesting to watch. But as the lack of depth at wide receiver proved fatal in last year’s playoff run, having more options at a crucial skill position in the NFL can never be taken lightly. This competition between these backs should bring out the best in them and the team.