Over the next few weeks, I'll take a position-by-position look at the 49ers roster with an eye on the upcoming season and beyond. Today we examine the situation at running back.
Signed for 2014: Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore, LaMichael James, Jewel Hampton, Bruce Miller, Will Tukuafu
Pending free agents: Anthony Dixon.
Outlook: No, Gore is not the same runner he was when he ran for 1,695 yards in 2006 and out-sprinted safeties and cornerbacks - notably, the Seahawks' safeties and cornerbacks - to the end zone. He gets caught from behind now and averaged 4.1 yards a carry in 2013, down from 4.7 yards the year prior and the lowest average of his career. That average dropped to 3.4 yards in the playoffs, and the 49ers running game - outside of Colin Kaepernick - was abysmal in the championship game against Seattle.
But it wasn't Gore's fault. Perhaps with the aid of their noisy crowd, the Seahawks defenders were far quicker than the 49ers blockers, and Gore hardly could get out of his own backfield. It's notable that backup running back Hunter, young legs and all, also averaged 3.4 yards per carry in the playoffs. Like Gore, Hunter's overall yards-per-carry average dipped in 2013, from 5.2 yards a carry to 4.7.
To me, the overarching issue in 2013 was that without Michael Crabtree and Delanie Walker the 49ers' passing game struggled for much of the season, which allowed defenses to tee off on Gore and the running game. Walker's blocking - and at the end of the season, fullback Bruce Miller's -- also was missed.
All of which is to say that Gore is still capable of being the 49ers' lead running back, especially when you consider he is perhaps the NFL's top running back in pass protection and that he performed like a Pro Bowl fullback whenever Kaepernick scampered out of the pocket.
One potential problem is that he stands to make $6.45 million, a figure that 31-year-old tailbacks don't make these days. Gore became miffed during contract negotiations three years ago and held out early in training camp that season. Still, it's hard to see what leverage the 49ers would have should they ask him to take a pay cut. Gore is a long-time and beloved figure on the team who holds the franchise record for rushing. Heck, in many of the mockups of the new stadium, there is a massive portrait of Gore draping one of the outside walls. That is, it's hard to see the 49ers winning a public relations battle, especially when Gore is heading into the final year of his contract and perhaps his final year with the team.
Gore's other leverage is that none of the team's young runners has proven he can be a starter, especially one in an offense committed to power running. Lattimore will be 18 months removed from his devastating knee injury when the 49ers' offseason program begins in April, but he remains a wild card because of his injury history. Hunter runs with power and could be a lead runner. But he and James both are on the small side.
Dixon, meanwhile, was used as a fullback at the end of the season but would much rather play tailback. He's only 26, and in a year in which there aren't expected to be a lot of good runners in the draft, he could get attention on the free-agent market. That he also can play special teams is a bonus.
Youth watch: All eyes will be on Lattimore in the offseason. He may not take away Gore's starting role in 2014, but the 49ers are in need of a lead runner for the future, and if Lattimore regains his previous, hard-charging form, he would be the obvious candidate. One caveat to comparisons with Gore, who also suffered injuries to both his knees in college. While Gore had tears to both of his ACLs, Lattimore's most recent injury was a dislocation of his knee. That involved tears to three ligaments, including the ACL, and is a much more severe injury than a single ACL tear. Which is why the 49ers essentially gave him a redshirt season in 2013.
Trade watch: James is a former second-round pick who has received scant carries at running back and who is facing another crowded backfield. With Lattimore in the mix, could James expect to get more carries in 2014? While no trade chatter has been made public yet - the combine is where that usually spills out - it's notable that the man who scouted James at Oregon, Tom Gamble, is now with the Eagles. So is the man who coached James at Oregon, Chip Kelly.
Bottom line: Look for Gore to start the final season of his contract in his familiar spot as the 49ers' lead running back but with Lattimore getting more and more snaps as the season goes on. It's hard to see the team using a high draft pick at this position, especially considering it is a down year for runners.
-- Matt Barrows