49ers season preview positional analysis: RBs

NinersDigest will break down the 49ers by position leading up to Sunday's season opener against the Seattle Seahawks, with keys to the season for each unit, strengths and weaknesses, key stats and facts, key arrivals and departures and the bottom line regarding whether the team is better or worse at the position compared to last season. Today: Running backs

The West Coast offense has a history of making stars out of 49ers running backs. As the WCO makes its return to San Francisco this season, the Niners already have a star running back anxiously waiting to perform in that prolific system.

And even better, Frank Gore is one happy star running back.

After several weeks of posturing this summer, the 49ers finally rewarded their best offensive player with the new deal he and his agent had been seeking for several months, a three-year, $21 million contract extension that pays Gore $13.5 million in guaranteed money and now gives him a single-minded focus for the upcoming season.

"The team that drafted me stepped up and showed me that they want me here," Gore said after signing the deal last week. "Now I can go out there and keep giving them my all on Sundays, just get ready for Seattle and try to take steps every week to win the (NFC) West. I have no doubt that we can get it done."

With Gore primed for his seventh NFL season, the 49ers have assembled a promising one-two punch of young backups with contrasting styles behind him. And in front of Gore will be his old buddy at fullback, veteran Moran Norris, who has paved the way for many of Gore's 6,414 career rushing yards – a number that leaves him 931 yards away from becoming San Francisco's all-time leading rusher.

Keys to the season

Keep Gore healthy: Despite the pounding he has absorbed as a marked man during his first six NFL seasons, Gore remains an elite player who still is at the top of his game. But now the Niners need to monitor his touches and protect him more than ever before after previous coach Mike Singletary promised to do that last year but failed miserably. Gore's backups got little action through the first 10 games of last season as he continued to carry the brunt of the workload. That resulted in the two-time Pro Bowler finally breaking down in November with the first serious injury of his career, a fractured right hip that forced Gore to miss the final five games of the season to snap his franchise-record string of four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. There is no reason to overwork or overload Gore this year with the various options the team will have in new coach Jim Harbaugh's offensive system.

More touches for others: In the 10 games before Gore was injured last year, the other running backs on San Francisco's roster combined for 16 total carries. That's a ridiculous number, particularly considering Gore logged 198 carries over the same span, even though the Niners had a capable veteran behind him in two-time Pro Bowler Brian Westbrook. This year the backups will offer less in experience and proven performance with rookie Kendall Hunter and second-year veteran Anthony Dixon. But those two youngsters have shown they are worthy of touches and both offer a different dynamic when they enter the game. Hunter was the NFL's preseason rushing champion with 231 yards and brings quick burst and explosion. Dixon ranked 19th in the league with 129 preseason rushing yards and brings size and power. Both need to be worked into the offense not only to take advantage of the different strengths they offer, but also to give Gore a blow and keep him fresh.

Don't forget the fullbacks: San Francisco fullbacks had three carries and four receptions last year. Total, for the entire season. Running backs coach Tom Rathman, when he played fullback in a different version of the West Coast offense with the 49ers from 1986-1993, once rushed for 427 yards in a single season and had 73 receptions in another season. While the Niners won't be utilizing the fullback on that kind of level, they do have a youngster in versatile rookie Bruce Miller that can do some of the things Rathman did, and both Miller and Norris should get the occasional touch to keep opposing defenses both honest and guessing.

The bottom line

With a fresh and healthy Gore primed for a big season in an offensive system that could make him even more effective than in the past, and veteran starters complemented by a nice blend of talent and youth behind them, this breaks down as a strong and deep unit that promises to be the best group of running backs the 49ers have fielded since Gore's arrival as San Francisco's third-round draft pick in 2005.

Unit at a glance

Starters for season opener: RB Frank Gore, FB Moran Norris
Reserves: RB Kendall Hunter, RB Anthony Dixon, FB Bruce Miller
Key new arrivals: Kendall Hunter, Bruce Miller
Key departures: Brian Westbrook
Running backs coach: Tom Rathman, ninth season with 49ers (coached team's RBs previously from 1997-2002), 15th season of NFL coaching experience.

STRENGTHS: An elite all-purpose back in Frank Gore who can get yards both on the outside and between the tackles and should be a dynamic multi-threat in the team's new offensive system. Promising young backups who possess a combination of size, speed and breakaway ability in Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon. A powerful, lead-blocking fullback in 250-pound Moran Norris and a versatile 248-pound youngster to complement Norris in rookie Bruce Miller.

WEAKNESSES: The 49ers cannot afford a serious injury to Gore, who has missed at least two games to injury in each of the past three seasons, including five last year. The backups are young and still unproven at the NFL level. Norris, entering his 11th NFL season, has lost a step and is more of a straightforward blocker than one who can lead block around the corner and in space.

By the numbers

4: 100-yard rushing games for Frank Gore in the first eight games of last season, giving Gore a franchise-record 24 for his career.

4.7: Career rushing average for Frank Gore, which ranks second among all active NFL rushers with at least 1,000 carries since Gore entered the league in 2005.

19: San Francisco's final NFL ranking in rushing offense last season, the 49ers' highest finish since 2006.

231: Total yards rushing by rookie Kendall Hunter on 35 carries during the preseason, a figure that led the NFL in exhibition games.

931: Yards on ground needed by Frank Gore in 2011 to become the 49ers' all-time leading rusher.

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