No team totaled more running plays than the San Francisco 49ers in 2013. And while a reconstructed receiving corps points to a more dynamic passing game in the coming season, San Francisco’s deep group of running backs could keep the strength of the offense on the ground. Training camps kicks off in just over two weeks, so we’ll continue our position spotlight series and focus on the team’s running backs.
Running Backs on the 90-man roster
Hyde (draft, second round)
Millard (draft, seventh round)
Lattimore (return from IR)
With a physical offensive line paired with a passing game that struggled for most of the season, the 49ers ran the ball 52.23 percent of the time, good for the second-most in the NFL. Frank Gore turned in his seventh 1,000-yard season of his nine-year career and remained the heartbeat of the offense despite turning 30 the previous spring. San Francisco finished third in the NFL rushing for 139.7 yards per game.
Gore amassed 1,128 yards last year after many believed he would have a reduced role heading into the season (yours truly included) as he continued toward the twilight of his career. His season ended on a sour note in the conference title game when he suffered a hand injury while rushing for just 14 yards on 11 carries in the loss to the Seahawks.
Gore had arguably the 49ers’ most important run of the season when he rumbled for 51 yards late in the fourth-quarter of Dec. 8’s win over Seattle setting up a game-winning 22-yard field goal after being behind 17-16. It was a game the team had to have against its division rival to help land a playoff spot. Gore’s nine touchdowns tied him for fifth in the league among running backs.
The 49ers used other running backs sparingly in 2013. Kendall Hunter finished second at the position with just 78 carries (to Gore’s 276) while Colin Kaepernick was the team’s second-leading rusher with 92 attempts for 524 yards and four touchdowns.
Coming off an Achilles tear that allowed him to play in 11 games in 2012, Hunter never appeared fully recovered from the injury. But he still averaged 4.6 yards per carry in his limited use while it appeared the coaching staff was unwilling to play him heavily just a year after the injury - or they were hesitant to take Gore off the field given his elite blocking ability. Hunter was most effective running to the outside the tackles where he averaged over 6.0 yards per carry. On all other runs he managed a 3.61-yard average, according to Pro Football Focus.
Often the subject of trade rumors and social media “controversy,” LaMichael James was given just 12 carries on offense in 2013. The former second-round pick made his mark on special teams taking over return duties on both kick and punt returns midway through the season after the team released Kyle Williams - who struggled in that role. James’ scant use on offense was a product of the team’s change in offensive philosophy veering away from the read-option that became such a valuable tool during 2012’s run to the Super Bowl when James average over 5.0 yards per carry.
After not handling punts while at Oregon, James became one of the better returners in the league in his second season in, averaging a 10.9-yard clip.
Anthony Dixon was also used sparingly on offense while being a key contributor on special teams. Dixon was used often used in short-yardage situations, but wasn’t great in that role. He finished the year with just 56 yards on 28 carries and went on to sign with the Bills this spring.
Bruce Miller spent the majority of the year as the only fullback on the roster and played well. His season was cut short, however, by broken scapula sustained during Week 15’s win in Tampa Bay. Miller finished third on the team with 25 receptions, a number indicative of the team’s struggles at the receiver position and in the passing game. He was replaced by Dixon and Will Tukuafu at fullback for the remainder of the season and the playoffs.
Storylines to Watch
GORE’S LAST RIDE?: Gore, 31, is entering the final year of his three-year, $21 million extension he signed in 2011. Entering his tenth season in the league, Gore will continue to play with a chip on his shoulder in 2014, but his career with the 49ers could be at a crossroads with the team bringing in Carlos Hyde and having a healthy Marcus Lattimore. Gore is the franchise’s leading rusher and has a shot at becoming a Hall of Famer down the road - a bid that would be aided greatly by a Super Bowl ring. Based on his impressive offseason boxing program, Gore will come to training camp in great shape yet again. The question becomes whether or not the team will be willing to give Gore another year or two given the uncertainty surrounding upcoming free agents Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupati.
THE NEW GUYS: Lattimore will technically be a rookie after sitting out all of last season while recovering from his gruesome knee injury he suffered in his final game at South Carolina. He still has to prove he can play when the pads come on in camp. Given that uncertainty, the 49ers weren’t afraid to use a high draft pick on Hyde, who was viewed by many as the draft’s top ball carrier. Hyde is a far more known commodity of the two, which could give him the leg up at the start of camp. But had he not suffered the injury, Lattimore might have been viewed as the better prospect coming out of college. San Francisco will give the newcomers a long look in training camp and the preseason, so expect to hear plenty about the team’s running back situation as the regular season nears.
HUNTER A FORGOTTEN MAN?: During the team’s offseason program there was little doubt about the team’s No. 2 halfback. Hunter has a better grasp on the team’s protections than both Hyde and Lattimore given his three seasons of experience. But the question will arise in camp about whether or not Hunter or either (both?) of the newcomers are better equipped to be every-down backs, rather than the change-of-pace back Hunter currently represents. Should Hunter show improvement running between the tackles, he could solidify himself as the team’s true No. 2 back despite the influx of young talent at the position. But he’s in for a fight with the newcomers.
THE JAMES SAGA: Is he unhappy with his role? Will he be traded? Will Bruce Ellington take over his return duties? These are all questions surrounding James as he enters his third training camp with the team. There’s little doubt he would like to be used more on offense, as he was in the 2012 postseasons after Hunter went down with his injury. But with the additions of Hyde and Lattimore, will the opportunity be there? If the offseason program is any indication, James clearly has the leg up on return duties for now. But should Ellington prove he can learn to handle punts - like James did during last year’s training camp - he could bump James and give the 49ers a little more roster flexibility.
LOCKS: Gore, Hunter, Hyde and Miller. Gore is a no-doubter and the 49ers wouldn’t cut a second-round pick prior to his first season. Hunter’s “lock” status might become questionable should Lattimore return to his pre-injury form. But because Lattimore is still a question mark at this point, Hunter’s status should remain safe heading into the season. Bruce Miller is healthy and remains one of the better traditional fullbacks in football.
NOTHING’S ASSURED BUT LOOKING GOOD: James. Again, Lattimore could have a big impact on James’ future with the team, as could Ellington’s ability to field punts. But for now, James is the 49ers’ only trusted punt returner giving a good shot of remaining with the team throughout training camp and into the regular season. But a lot could change going forward should the other guys step up. James would be one of the team’s obvious trade candidates should the team elect to leave him off the 53-man roster.
ON THE BUBBLE: Lattimore, Hampton, Tukuafu, Millard. Until the pads come on, there’s no telling whether or not Lattimore will be a steal after being taken in the fourth round in 2013, or if it will be a wasted pick on a player that could never return from his injury. He’s that big of a question mark - and will likely be the most talked-about player in camp. Tukuafu will be an interesting player to watch given his versatility to play both fullback and defensive line, but is on the outside looking in. Jewel Hampton is practice-squad eligible again after holding one of the eight spots all of last season and will likely continue to get the majority of the carries in the preseason to save wear and tear from the other backs. Millard is recovering from an ACL tear suffered at Oklahoma and appears destined to be one of the 49ers’ “red-shirts” in 2014.
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
Training Camp Spotlights:
E-mail Niners Digest: NinersDigest@gmail.com
Follow Editor in Chief Chris Biderman on Twitter.