49ers positional analysis: Running back

With the calendar now turned to June, it's time to break down the personnel the 49ers currently have on their roster, for better or worse, at each individual position. The names and numbers will surely change by the time the team is actually practicing and playing football again, but here's a status report with the scheduled start of training camp fewer than two months away. Today: Running backs

Starters at beginning of 2010 season: RB Frank Gore (in one-back set)

Starters at finish of 2010 season: RB Brian Westbrook, FB Moran Norris

2010 positional grade: B-minus

Running backs currently on roster: RB Frank Gore, RB Anthony Dixon, FB Moran Norris, RB Kendall Hunter, FB Bruce Miller, RB Xavier Omon

Pending free agents: Brian Westbrook (unrestricted)

Need to upgrade position before season: Minimal

In all the fluctuations and failings that have taken place within the 49ers' transitory offense over the past half-decade, there is one thing the team has always been able to count on: The churning, driving running and consistent production of Frank Gore, easily the team's MVP in the time since he joined the Niners in 2005.

The good news is that Gore, who turned 28 last month, still is at the top of his game, even as he comes off a fractured right hip that ended his season in Week 12 last year, an injury from which his agent recently said Gore is now fully recovered.

The bad news is that Gore probably has reached the zenith of his career, and the wear and tear his body has absorbed since two major knee injuries in college will only serve to slow him down and make him less effective as his days with the 49ers wind to their conclusion.

One of the true tragedies of San Francisco's current string of eight consecutive losing/non-playoff seasons is the way the 49ers have essentially wasted the elite talent of Gore, as far as building a winner and reaching the postseason is concerned. Gore is a championship-level running back. The offense and team around him has been far from it.

Gore still is capable of production at the highest level, and he could do wondrous things in new coach Jim Harbaugh's version of the West Coast offense. But more than ever, the 49ers must protect Gore and not expose him to overwork. The 49ers have been saying for years – and particularly last year – that that was their primary intention entering the season.

And then the Niners went out and overworked Gore like seldom before, resulting in the first season-ending injury in Gore's six years in the NFL. After promising to shelter Gore from his typical weekly abuse – and having some capable backups to make that happen – the 49ers handed the football to Gore 198 times (to go along with his 46 receptions on passing downs) in the team's first 10 games while other San Francisco running backs had a combined total of 16 carries over that same span.

That's a ridiculous ratio of numbers, and it resulted in Gore finally breaking down when the team needed him for the stretch run. Gore is a warrior, but the 49ers can't expect him to hold up any better as his career progresses. The empty promises of protecting Gore in recent seasons must become a reality in 2011, the final season of his current contract with the team.

Harbaugh and the team's new coaching staff seem intelligent enough to know this, and even better yet, probably will graft into their overall plan for the offense elements that will actually make it happen.

To be sure, Gore is a player that's foremost in San Francisco's plans at running back for the upcoming season.

"He is a guy that we love," general manager Trent Baalke said.

Love means never having to say you're sorry, so the 49ers ostensibly really do have a plan this year to complement Gore, and young, promising players to do so with in second-year pro Anthony Dixon, fourth-round draft pick Kendall Hunter and even seventh-round pick Bruce Miller, whom the 49ers are converting from defensive end to fullback and could become the next 250-pound bruiser to clear space in front of Gore and the team's other halfbacks.

Norris has been San Francisco's 250-pound bruiser at fullback to clear space in front of Gore over most of the past five seasons, but entering his 11th NFL season at age 33, he no longer seems much a part of San Francisco's plans moving forward, particularly with the team's shift to an offensive set that uses the fullback in more ways than Norris' plundering style. Norris is under contract and could return, but the likelihood is that he won't, with the Niners grooming the athletic Miller as their blocking fullback and using more of tight end Delanie Walker in H-back formations and on passing downs.

Former Pro-Bowler Westbrook, when finally given a chance last year, proved he still has gas and growl in his tank and was effective replacing Gore as the lead back after Gore was injured. Westbrook started the final five games and finished with 340 yards rushing to go with a solid 4.4 average per carry, the best among San Francisco running backs.

But Westbrook, who will be entering his 10th NFL season at age 32, likely will want to find a new team that will give him one final shot as a starter after the way he was misused in San Francisco when Gore was healthy. The 49ers aren't likely to ask him back as a free agent because of the young talent they have on hand at the position in Dixon and Hunter.

After a promising rookie season in which he learned to adjust to the professional level, Dixon surely should be ticketed for more carries this season and used on a more regular basis. He rushed for 237 yards on 70 carries last year, an average of just 3.4 yards per pop, but he has the shiftiness and power to improve on those numbers as a reliable backup.

The wild card here is Hunter, who was phenomenally productive when healthy at Oklahoma State, producing two 1,500-yard rushing seasons in the past three years. At 5-7 and 199 pounds, the issue for him at the NFL level will be to avoid massive hits and stay healthy, but he certainly has the credentials to contribute right away as a speedy complement to the Gore/Davis tandem.

Hunter won't be expected to do much as a rookie, unless he shows everybody he can and deserves an expanded role within the offense. The 49ers certainly will use Hunter's breakaway ability in the open field if he proves he is ready.

"Obviously, he's a skilled running back," Baalke said. "I think his skill set is a great fit. We feel real good with him as a three-down, actually a four-down contributor. It's hard to find guys that can play four downs, and we felt this guy has the capability of being a four-down player in the National Football League."

The 49ers already have a premier four-down lead back in Gore, who was on his way to a fifth consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season before his November injury. Gore can do it all, and he needs just 931 yards on the ground this year to become San Francisco's all-time leading career rusher. His career average of 4.7 yards per carry ranks third in team history, and he has averaged 51 receptions over the past five seasons.

The potential quality and depth behind Gore makes this one of the strongest positions on the team, and an area – in contrast to several others – that will likely go unchanged as far as personnel is concerned before the season begins.

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