Projected 2012 starters HB Frank Gore, FB Bruce Miller
Other running backs currently in camp: HB Kendall Hunter, HB Brandon Jacobs, HB LaMichael James, HB Anthony Dixon, FB Rock Cartwright, FB Cameron Bell, HB Jewel Hampton
Unit analysis With their offseason upgrades, the 49ers not only promise to have the top group of running backs in the NFC West, but they could have one of the very best units in the entire league. Three-time Pro Bowler Gore remains the workhorse starter after another banner season during which he became the all-time leading career rusher in 49ers history. Gore had a franchise-record five consecutive 100-yard games during the first half of the season last year, then hit a wall, though his decline after that (no outing of more than 88 yards rushing in final eight games) might be somewhat exaggerated. Gore was his usual hard-charging self during the playoffs, and the Niners might have made it to the Super Bowl had they gone to him more often in the NFC Championship Game. Gore (1,211 yard rushing) had his fifth 1,000-yard season, but as he enters his eighth NFL season with a franchise-best 7,625 career yards, the 49ers are intent on both complementing and supplementing him with other viable options. Kendall Hunter was exceptional in that role last season as a rookie, rushing for 473 yards and averaging 4.2 a pop, but the Niners were not satisfied to remain with the status quo and added free-agent Jacobs form more power around the goal line and drafted James in the second round to add more explosiveness. Gore and Jacobs are supposedly fading Pro Bowl stars that both are determined to recapture former glory, and Jacobs plans to shed weight and play at around 250 pounds, nearly 20 pounds lower than his highest playing weight. That provides a lot of competition for playing time at halfback, where veteran Anthony Dixon also is in the mix but has his work cut out just to make the roster. Miller was a find last year as a rookie at fullback, and his versatility makes him a weapon at the position. Cartwright's specialty is special teams, but he also is capable with the ball in his hands and gives the team another option at fullback.
NinersDigest rank in division: 1
Projected 2012 starters HB Beanie Wells, FB Anthony Sherman
Other running backs currently in camp: RB Ryan Williams, RB LaRod Stephens-Howling, RB Alfonso Smith, RB Javarris James, RB William Powell, FB James Crank
Unit analysis Wells played through a knee injury for most of the season and still became the first running back in team history to rush for more than 1,000 yards, running with a tougher edge and with more purpose than earlier in his career. Despite the injury, Wells still rushed for career-high totals of 1,047 yards and 10 touchdowns, tying for the fourth-most in franchise history. But he likely will have to share more carries with Williams in 2012. Williams missed the season with a knee injury – a torn patellar tendon in a preseason game against Green Bay – but if he's healthy, he's a big-play threat. The team's second-round draft choice in 2011, Williams was impressive before he got hurt. Stephens-Howling is a situational player who excels in the open field and as a decoy and receiver out of the backfield. Smith has great speed and intriguing ability. James gives the team some experience in the event of injury. Sherman should remain the starter at fullback; he played well as a rookie in his first season in the role. The Cardinals finally seem to have found a run game, but everybody else in the division has one, too, and still probably one that's better.
NinersDigest rank in division: 4
St. Louis Rams
Projected 2012 starter HB Steven Jackson in one-back set
Other running backs currently in camp: HB Isaiah Pead, HB Daryl Richardson, HB Chase Reynolds, HB Calvin Middleton, HB Nick Schweiger, FB Brit Miller, FB Ben Guidugli, FB Todd Anderson
Unit analysis Jackson continues to win the respect of teammates and opponents, but he has still not been on a Rams team that has had a winning record. He continues to hold out hope that a true turnaround will come, and he is especially confident that Jeff Fisher will be the coach to do it. Jackson turns 29 on July 22, but he is adamant that he will show the NFL that the life of an NFL running back doesn't end at 30. The hard-running, three-time Pro Bowler has had a wonderful career, and with 1,145 yards rushing last year, he had his seventh consecutive 1,000-yard season despite missing most of the first three games with a quad injury. His streak of 1,000-yard seasons is a team record and the longest active streak in the NFL. One thing that will keep Jackson young is an influx of young talent at the position. The Rams invested second- and seventh-round picks in Pead and Richardson, respectively. Pead missed a good part of the offseason workouts, but he is still expected to be productive as a change of pace to Jackson. Richardson showed quickness in offseason practices and might open some eyes in training camp. The other running backs will have an uphill climb to make the roster, with rookies Middleton and Schweiger competing against Reynolds, who was on the practice squad last season. Schottenheimer has played with a fullback in the past, but it's unknown if he will utilize one more than a second tight end. Former 49er Miller is strong on special teams, Guidugli was on the practice squad last season and the 267-pound Anderson could surprise as an undrafted free agent.
NinersDigest rank in division: 2
Projected 2012 starters HB Marshawn Lynch, FB Michael Robinson
Other running backs currently in camp: HB Robert Turbin, HB Leon Washington, HB Tyrell Sutton, HB Kregg Lumpkin, HB Vai Taua
Unit analysis It appeared that Lynch had matured both on and off the field in 2011 during his career-best season, but then he displayed his knucklehead ways recently when he was arrested on DUI charges near his hometown of Oakland, one of several off-the-field incidents Lynch has had since entering the NFL. It's uncertain how that will affect him in the upcoming season, and he could be facing a league suspension. On the field, Lynch became a force last season while reaching the Pro Bowl for the second time, and he now rivals Gore and Jackson for status as the division's best running back. A fourth-round draft pick in this year's draft out of Utah State, Turbin will serve as the backup behind Lynch. Like Lynch, Turbin is a big, physical back that should provide a similar running style when Lynch is out of the game. However, Turbin is more of a shifty runner when he reaches the second level of the defense, and also catches the ball well out of the backfield. Lynch carried the ball a career-high 285 times for 1,204 yards and 12 touchdowns last season on his way back to the Pro Bowl. The Seahawks would like to lessen his carries this season so that Lynch is healthy should they make the playoffs. Washington is penciled in as the third-down back. Former 49er Robinson continues to see time at the fullback position, and he provided key blocking at fullback for Lynch and also was a vocal team leader in the clubhouse, just like during his days in San Francisco.
NinersDigest rank in division: 3