Stock watch: Running back

With Frank Gore returning after six consecutive seasons as the team's leading rusher, running back was a strength for the 49ers this year even before training camp began. But the position has taken on a few new dimensions this summer, with a sticky contract situation looming over Gore and some new faces demanding attention. Here's a look at whose stock is on the way up and on the way down at RB.


Rising


Kendall Hunter: The fourth-round draft pick had a sensational performance in Saturday's 17-3 exhibition victory over the Raiders, but that just continued his fine showing this summer. Hunter can be easy to bring down, but you have to catch him first, and he already has proven at this level that won't be easy for anyone. He answered questions about his blocking in pass protection with the way he upended Oakland defender Matt Giordano on a safety blitz, allowing Colin Kaepernick time to complete a pass for a first down. Hunter had ended San Francisco's previous possession with a 53-yard touchdown run that displayed both his vision and ability to hit holes and then run away from defenders. San Francisco's preseason rushing leader with 134 yards and an 8.4 average, Hunter has not only locked up a roster berth, but also may be convincing coaches to include him regularly in the team's 2011 offensive game plan.

Bruce Miller: This rookie is so versatile that the 49ers gave him snaps at four different positions – on both sides of the football – during practice sessions last week. But it was during Saturday's game that Miller's play suggested he indeed may have a future at the fullback position San Francisco drafted him to play. Miller was the first San Francisco fullback in the game – ahead of regular veteran starter Moran Norris – and he had several outstanding blocks, including a few to open holes for long runs by Hunter. The Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year last year as a defensive end at Central Florida, the 248-pound Miller also showed he can catch the ball out of the backfield by snagging a pass from Colin Kaepernick for a nine-yard gain. Miller also contributed on special teams, and it's going to be difficult for the 49ers not to keep this multi-dimensional player on their final roster. After Saturday's game, Miller received this glowing praise from coach Jim Harbaugh, "Very pleased with Bruce Miller. He's been like the ideal rookie. He's got a good look in his eye and he works really hard and he's doing very well. Bruce Miller is doing a nice job."

Xavier Omon: The third-year veteran has made it clear that he's no afterthought in the RB completion. He had a good training camp, and at 227 pounds he brings a load as a downhill runner who hits the hole hard. After two seasons with the Buffalo Bills, who drafted him in 2008, Omon has bounced around practice squads in Seattle and New York the past two years and now plays like a guy who's hungry to take advantage of his latest opportunity. He did that Saturday against the Raiders, rushing for 62 yards on 14 carries, including a five-yard touchdown run that completed the scoring midway through the fourth quarter. Omon runs harder than Anthony Dixon, a back he compares to physically. When asked Sunday if Omon has been a surprise and has a chance to make the roster as a No. 4 halfback, Harbaugh said, "There's opportunity there. He's somebody that's been improving and hopefully he'll continue to do that."

Holding


Frank Gore: San Francisco's best offensive player is in his usual summer holding pattern, getting a cameo appearance at the beginning of exhibition games – he's averaging 5.1 yards on eight preseason carries – before he heads to the bench to wait for the regular season. There is no question that Gore still is the best running back the 49ers have – a star running back at that – but his contract situation has become a real issue this summer that threatens to become a cloud hovering over his 2011 season. Until Gore signs a new contract with the team, there will always be questions whether that will actually ever happen, and the longer that contract doesn't get signed, the more the 49ers begin thinking about a future without Gore, particularly with a bunch of young players behind him at the position showing they are capable with the football in their hands. Gore is outstanding, no question about it, and he looks primed for a big season. But it is yet to be seen what might happen if unhappiness begins to creep into his game.

Teetering


Anthony Dixon: His numbers were good against the Raiders – 53 yards rushing on 12 carries – and there is no doubt Dixon has talent and can bring a load when he starts running downhill. But getting him headed in that direction without haste seems to be a mounting problem. Dixon tap-dances way too often in the backfield, and that hesitancy is a hiccup in his game that needs to be corrected. He was the unquestioned No. 2 option at running back as Gore's backup when training camp began, but that no longer is the case. Every time he stutter-steps in the backfield, Dixon seems to lose future carries that might have been his in the regular-season game plan. His roster berth doesn't appear in jeopardy, but he's not the lock he was when summer practice began.

Jack Corcoran The young fullback signed a three-year deal with the 49ers at the end of July, which isn't typical of the team's approach with fringe players. Corcoran spent 10 days on the Tennessee Titans' practice squad last year, and maybe that's what the 49ers are thinking of with Corcoran as a player to develop for the future. In the here and now, Corcoran has virtually no chance to make the final roster, though he got some significant action against the Raiders and had some nice blocks. He also looked decent in training camp when given the opportunity, and had a five-yard reception out of the backfield in the exhibition opener at New Orleans.

Falling


Seth Smith: The undrafted rookie from New Mexico State faced long odds to make the roster anyway, but the emergence of other young players at the position has virtually taken away any chance he had of getting noticed and making his mark. Smith didn't play on offense against the Raiders, and he has yet to touch the ball in two preseason games. That doesn't seem likely to change before he hits the waiver wire as the 49ers attempt to sort out the competition logjam ahead of Smith at halfback.

Moran Norris: The 11th-year veteran still rides atop the depth chart today at fullback, but he appears to be clinging to that role in an offense that might not fit his straightforward style of play. Norris hasn't touched the football in two preseason games, and it says something that when the 49ers sent in a fullback on their second offensive play of Saturday's game, it was rookie Bruce Miller instead of Norris. It would seem that Norris would have to define himself as an essential part of the offensive game plan to keep his place with the team. That would be as a lead blocker for San Francisco's power runs, but Norris did not distinguish himself in that role during three series of action against the Raiders, when it appeared he had trouble making blocks that he needs to make.


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