The 49ers are going to run the ball - a lot - in 2009. The question they must answer this offseason is what kind of approach they will take. That is, will they do it the old-fashioned way with one running back hammering away at a defense through the course of a game like the Falcons, Redskins and Vikings did in 2008? Or will they go with the two-back approach of the Giants and Panthers?
New offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye said last week that he thought that Frank Gore was capable of handling 25 carries a game, an indication that he at least feels the one-back approach is feasible. On the team's web site, however, general manager Scot McCloughan seemed pretty gung ho about having a two-pronged attack: "A two running back system will work," McCloughan said. "I think nowadays you have to have that type of system in the NFL, especially with our approach on offense - being a physical running team. You don't just need a change of pace guy, but you need two backs that can have production. If you just have one, you're going to where (sic) him down. It's a long season so if you want to be a playoff contender and get to the Super Bowl, you're going to need two backs to get there."
If the 49ers indeed settle on the two-back approach, they likely will have to go out and find that second running back. DeShaun Foster becomes a free agent in three and a half weeks and the team appears to be in no hurry to re-sign him. Thomas Clayton showed flashes of brilliance in preseason, but coaches so far have been unwilling to give him any bigger role than practice-squad running back. Michael Robinson would be a real headache for defenses with the ball in his hand in the Wildcat, something the 49ers want to do more with in 2009. But while he's a nifty runner in space, Robinson, a converted quarterback, still is not natural at finding the holes and bursting through them. It's quite possible the 49ers will draft a running back with size in April such as Liberty's Rashad Jennings or N.C. State's Andre Brown.
If the 49ers settled on a one-back approach, Gore certainly could handle the load. Yes, he's been slowed by injuries the last two seasons, but both were caught-in-the-wash ankle sprains, not the types of injuries that indicate he was breaking down at the end of the season. Gore had 25 or more carries only once in 2008 - against Detroit in Week Three when he ran for a season-high 130 yards. He finished the season with 240 carries, which is a healthy dose but is nowhere near the amount of pounding that Clinton Portis (342 carries), Adrian Peterson (363) and Michael Turner (376) absorbed. In other words, if Raye and the 49ers wanted Gore to have an additional 100 or so carries, he would head into the season relatively fresh.
One position that is certain to change is fullback. The 49ers ended the season without a true fullback on the roster. Zak Keasey could be back in training camp, but the former college linebacker is not the "square-backed" thumper that Raye described last week. Here's a list of the fullbacks who are available both through free agency (which is subject to change) and the draft:
Heath Evans, UFA, New England Patriots
John Kuhn, RFA, Green Bay Packers
Corey McIntyre, UFA, Buffalo Bills
Lorenzo Neal, UFA, Baltimore Ravens
Moran Norris, UFA, Detroit Lions
Montell Owens, RFA, Jacksonville Jaguars
Tony Richardson, UFA, New York Jets
Terrelle Smith, UFA, Arizona Cardinals
Naufahu Tahi, RFA, Minnesota Vikings
Leonard Weaver, UFA, Seattle Seahawks
Jason Cook, Mississippi
Tony Fiammetta, Syracuse
Quinn Johnson, LSU
Eric Kettani, Navy
Marcus Mailei, Weber State
Brannan Southerland, Georgia
Next: The offensive line
-- Matt Barrows