While most of the 49ers news centers around who to sign this off season and who will be let go this off season and who is available at certain positions this off season. There is one major concern looming on the not too distant horizon. The eventual direction at running back that the 49ers will take in the coming years. No doubt running back Frank Gore is the supreme leader at this position for the time being, but his contract is up in 2015. And the 49ers at this point have a host of running backs behind him that have left questions regarding their production value.
Problem is, Gore can’t play forever, and he has been a hard running, bruising back for eight years now. He is already the career-rushing leader for the franchise, all while only averaging just over 16 carries per game during his career. He has rushed for over 1,000 yards in all but two of his eight seasons. Unfortunately, that also means that his body has taken a massive beating in his time with the 49ers. Only three times in his career has he played a full 16 game season. So it stands to reason that his days could be numbered. There is a good chance that the 49ers will see Gore retire after two more seasons, instead of renegotiating a new contract or leaving the franchise. He will have left an indelible mark on the franchise upon his exit.
Problem is, are the 49ers prepared for his departure with the stable of running backs they have in his wake? It’s a tough act to follow, Gore has been a feature back his entire career, for the exception of his first season. And he would be the feature running back on all but about five teams in the league now. Do the 49ers have a future feature back in house now; one that could pick up the reigns as Gore leaves them? And should they be looking elsewhere for such a running back?
Kendall Hunter has been the second string running back for two years now. Are the 49ers banking on him being a top tier back in the league by the time Gore retires? He runs hard, has great hand, and doesn’t fumble the ball, but he doesn’t seem to have that breakaway speed to carry him to the next level. And with him returning in 2013 after a season ending Achilles injury, his speed might be even more of a concern. And there might be an even bigger issue at hand with Hunter, as of now he makes less per year than the third string rookie running back LaMichael James. Just by contract status, the 49ers don’t seem to putting all their chips into the Hunter stock. His contract is up in 2015, so there is good reason to think he moves on at that point. Leaving the 49ers with only two running backs.
It appears that the 49ers have put a lot of stock into James, though a majority of his carries came when Hunter went down with injury. But James did prove promising, rushing for an average of 4.6 yards on his carries. Only thing is, it’s only been one year to evaluate. It’s hard to throw the future of the franchise in his lap after just one year. The 49ers have him wrapped up until 2016, but they still have to be cognizant of him not living up to the expectations. So it is feasible to think that the 49ers look for another young running back that has a more decorated resume.
And what of Anthony Dixon, the 49ers fourth string running back? He has been with the team for three years, and the 49ers put a lot of stock into him in his first year. Unfortunately, his carries have declined with each year. In his first year, he was getting just over four carries per game, now he is averaging just over one carry per game. Obviously the 49ers don’t have him in the game scheme heading into any contest. So if Gore and Hunter leave town, can he really be asked to play a big second fiddle role to James in the future? His contract is up at the end of the 2013 season, meaning he too will probably look for a bigger role on another team.
The future does not look all that certain in the 49ers backfield once Gore retires. It just might be in the best interest of the team to start looking into other running backs that are capable of a heavy workload in this year’s free agency market. There are some standouts that would be able to come in and provide a solid base for the 49ers to start with.
LaRod Stephens-Howling had his metal tested in the Arizona Cardinal organization with all of their running back injuries. He played admirably when he was asked to carry the load, and he’s only 25 with three years in the league under his belt. The 49ers could also look at Shonn Greene; he is a feature back in this league already, after only three years. He’s 27 years old now, but appears to be just coming into his prime. There is also Jonathan Dwyer from the Pittsburgh Steelers, he played very well in his role replacing all the injured running backs they had. And at only 23 years old, he to has put in three years in the league. All three of those guys could step in and possibly become a future number one back in San Francisco.
All in all, we still have a few years left with Gore leading the way, and the 49ers do not have to make any tough decisions immediately. Who knows maybe the market will be even deeper in the years to come.
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