Michael Crabtree grabbed all the headlines following the 49ers' draft. But you have to wonder whether third-round pick Glen Coffee ultimately will be as big - or bigger - a piece in the 49ers' offense. The 49ers, after all, have been built to run the ball and it's obvious that they think Coffee can be their workhorse of the future. The question is, how much longer can their current workhorse, Frank Gore, carry the load? Here's an alphabetical look at the 49ers' first three running backs.
- Thomas Clayton. 5-11, 222. Over the last year, the most common questions I receive involve Thomas Clayton, and most of them go something like this: Why the heck don't the 49ers like Clayton? The answer is, they do like him ... just not as much as they have liked other running backs on their roster. Other teams like him, too. The Philadelphia Eagles, in fact, were considering grabbing Clayton off the 49ers' practice squad late last season before the 49ers elevated him to the active roster.
At 222 pounds, Clayton is the biggest of the 49ers' tailbacks. As a rookie, he displayed a disturbing knack for going to the ground after first contact. But he has corrected that problem since, learning how to run with more forward lean and better toughness. His best game as a 49er came during a preseason game against Chicago when he rushed 18 times for 81 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown. And yet Clayton finds himself in the same - and perhaps a worse - situation this season. The 49ers drafted Coffee in the
secondthird round to be Gore's primary backup. Special teams ace and Wildcat specialist Michael Robinson isn't going anywhere. The team also has high expectations for undrafted rookie Kory Sheets. In short, Clayton seems destined to once again be one of the final roster cuts. If that's the case, look for another team -- Philly? --to snap him up when he goes on waivers ...
- Glen Coffee. 6-0, 209. All offseason the 49ers said they would add another running back to the roster to give the 49ers' rushing attack a one-two punch combination. They also said they were looking for a big runner to complement Gore, someone in the 215- to 230-pound range. In the end, however, they came up with someone with almost exactly Gore's dimensions. Still, you have to trust GM Scot McCloughan and the team's scouting staff on this one. They hit on Gore with a third-round pick in 2005 and they see similar potential in Coffee, another third rounder who says he can easily add muscle and bulk up into the 220-pound range. Indeed, a heavier Coffee seems like an imposing figure. He doesn't run so much as he gallops, and every step he takes seems to exude violence. He's going to be a fun guy to watch when the pads go on.
- Frank Gore. 5-9, 217. First off, that 217 next to Gore's name is deceptive. Each spring, Gore expands into the 220-pound range only to sweat off the excess pounds in early July during excruciating hill-climbing exercises in Miami's Tropical Park. (The guy ties a truck tire to his waist, fills it with weights and then runs the hills. Take that, Bear Grylls!) When he reports for training camp, look for Gore to be 210 pounds or lower.
The question with Gore is whether he's lost a step since his marvelous 2006 season. To me, it's hard to make that argument. Yes, he's been injured in each of the last two seasons. But the injuries haven't been the type that signal a running back is beginning to break down. Instead, they have been caught-in-the-wash type injuries in which someone falls awkwardly on his ankles. And yes, Gore didn't seem to run with the same power last year as he did in 2006. But was that due to Gore or to an offensive system that had him run outside the tackles instead of between them? This year's power-running offense will be tailored much more to Gore's strengths. Given that, at the end of the season we will have a better vantage point from which to judge whether or not Frank Gore is slowing down.
-- Matt Barrows