SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Frank Gore's status should not have an impact on how the 49ers view the upcoming draft - or their scope of this week's scouting combine.
At some point, San Francisco should address the running back position, either in the draft or free agency, whether or not Gore comes back for his 11th season in red and gold. It was reported over the holiday weekend by agent Drew Rosenhaus speaking to ESPN that Gore's camp and the 49ers have entered contract talks for the pending free agent.
For much of 2014, the 49ers got away with having just two half backs on the roster after granting LaMichael James his release following the first week of the season. It didn't become a problem until late in the year when Gore sustained a concussion and Carlos Hyde twisted an ankle in Dec. 14's loss in Seattle, forcing journeyman Alfonso Smith to become the featured back.
If Gore rejoins San Francisco, it would still behoove the 49ers to find a running back for depth purposes, who could see rotational playing time with Hyde in the future. Kendall Hunter will be back competing for a roster spot after signing a one-year contract extension during his rehab from a torn ACL, but is no guarantee to return to form. That knee injury, sustained early in last summer's training camp, was Hunter's second significant injury in his four-year NFL career. He tore an Achilles that ended his 2012 season after 11 games.
The 49ers have drafted a running back in the last six drafts, including Marcus Lattimore in 2013, who elected retirement last season after being unable to come back from his horrific knee injury suffered in college.
Evaluating draft needs in February leading into the combine is a tricky task. Free agency, officially starting in March, can change draft needs drastically. The same for players mulling retirement, like Justin Smith.
Here's look at the 49ers' roster needs with the scouting combine starting this week:
With Ray McDonald gone and the future of Smith uncertain, the 49ers could use more depth along the defensive line, particularly at defensive end. Second-year players Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine showed glimpses of starter-potential during their first run in the rotation in 2014, but they would have a hard time replicating the success of Smith and McDonald if they were made starters to open the season. Tony Jerod-Eddie will also be in that mix.
Good defensive line play is massively important for San Francisco, considering what a good line does for NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. Eating up blocks from offensive linemen is a premium commodity, because it allows those inside linebackers to work in space instead of fighting off blocks.
At nose tackle, the 49ers should feel good about Glenn Dorsey coming back from his torn biceps muscle that kept him sidelined for all of last season. But Ian Williams' broken ankle, his second in two years, could allow general manager Trent Baalke to address the interior of the defensive line as well.
During Jim Harbaugh's first three seasons, the player the 49ers used to take the top off defenses was tight end Vernon Davis, who had one of his worst statistical seasons in 2014. Without being able to count on Davis to come back (if he is not released) as a true deep threat, the 49ers will have to find speed on the outside to open things up underneath for Anquan Boldin and the running game.
The 49ers became markedly easier to defend last season without Davis' ability to stretch the field and eat up double teams. And with Michael Crabtree likely on his way out as a free agent and Boldin turning 35 in October, San Francisco needs new blood in its receiving corps. Former fourth-round picks Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton had scant contributions last season, and have yet to prove they are building blocks for a quality group of receivers.
San Francisco needs talented weapons to aid Colin Kaepernick's development if the offense is going to be more dynamic going forward than it was in 2014.
Free agent Dan Skuta might have played himself into a starter's salary during his productive two seasons with the 49ers after getting significant playing time in place of Aldon Smith, who missed 14 games combined due to off-the-field issues. Ahmad Brooks' production doesn't line up with his expected $7.055 million cap hit in 2015, which might lead to him being a post-June 1 release, saving the 49ers roughly $4.7 million in cap space.
That means San Francisco could be without two of its four outside linebackers that saw significant playing time last season. Corey Lemonier is entering year three, although his sophomore season was borderline disastrous, allowing Aaron Lynch to quickly pass him on the depth chart and become a key piece of the defensive front going forward.
And with Aldon Smith unsigned beyond this season, there are significant questions facing the position. Adding a young pass rusher in the draft to spell Lynch and Smith that could potentially start down the road would be an important addition.
Put it this way: there are players on the roster that would be bigger surprises if they were released than Vernon Davis.
Coming off a bad season (there's really no other way to put it), Davis, 31, is slated count for nearly $7 million against the cap in the final year of his contract. And with the uninspiring play of Vance McDonald in the passing game, the 49ers might be wise to address the position early in the draft with someone that could provide match up problems while being able to block effectively in the running game.
McDonald has proven he can block, but his 10 catches in two seasons have not been what the 49ers were expecting after he was a primary pass catcher during his days at Rice. The 49ers have to do something to spark the position group, whether it be through the draft or free agency. For physical team that would like to be effective in play action, tight ends play a big role.
Earmarking Derek Carrier for a big role would be unrealistic, although he will be in the hunt for a prominent role in training camp.
Yes, Jimmie Ward appears to be the next long-term safety in line behind Bethea. But if Ward develops into the nickel corner the team is hoping for, that means he would only be playing safety half the time.
Bethea had an outstanding first season with the 49ers, earning Pro-Bowl and team MVP honors. But he will turn 31 at the start of training camp and have cap hits of $6.25 and $7 million in 2016 and 2017, making it likely he either restructures his deal or finds employment elsewhere beyond the coming season.
It's also fair to consider Reid's concussion issues. Reid sustained his third concussion in two seasons late last year and missed his first NFL start in Week 17 against the Cardinals.
It's unlikely the 49ers would invest an early-round pick on a safety given they have three in Reid, Bethea and Ward they like this season. But finding a player that could play in a pinch while contributing on special teams - and give Craig Dahl a run for his roster spot - would be prudent.
Interior offensive line
With free agent Mike Iupati likely commanding more on the open market than the 49ers are willing to pay, there might be an opening at left guard. If first-year starting center Daniel Kilgore recovers from his broken leg suffered in October and regains his starting job, then second-year player Marcus Martin would have the inside track at Iupati's old job at left guard.
There's also Brandon Thomas, an athletic guard who missed his rookie season after tearing an ACL in a pre-draft workout last spring. If Thomas is healthy, he will be in the mix to start as well. But Thomas' presence shouldn't prevent San Francisco from adding an interior player to make up for Iupati's pending loss.
Reserve guard/center Joe Looney is entering the last year of his contract after struggling in limited playing time last season. The 49ers could afford to give him some competition in camp, along with Thomas and Martin. Right guard Alex Boone is also looking at a contract year in 2015.
The two corners that received the most playing time, Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox, are both free agents coming off solid seasons. That means they won't return cheaply, and the 49ers will likely have at least one hole to fill. Tramaine Brock will look to bounce back after injuries sidelined him for all but three games last seasons. He will compete for the starting role he won with his outstanding 2013 that he lost courtesy of a bad turf toe injury sustained in the season opener.
Dontae Johnson showed plenty of promise last season and could benefit the most from either Culliver or Cox leaving in free agency. His ascension would mean there's of room on the back end of the depth chart for an infusion of competition.
The 49ers hope "red-shirt" players Kenneth Acker (stress fracture) and Keith Reaser (ACL) will be rehabbed and ready to compete for prominent roles, but San Francisco has yet to reap any great rewards from those players that missed their first NFL seasons due to injury.
If they lose Culliver, Cox, or Chris Cook, in free agency, they will have to consider drafting another corner after taking three last spring.
Blaine Gabbert was Jim Harbaugh's choice to back up Kaepernick, and appears unlikely to return after his uninspiring preseason showing last August. This season's quarterback class in famously weak, but the team will need a cheap, backup quarterback to have as insurance for Kaepernick, who still hasn't missed a start since taking over for Alex Smith in 2012.
If the 49ers are hell bent on being contenders, they might look for a back up QB in the form of Jake Locker or another veteran in free agency to avoid having to throw a developing player into the fire should something happen to Kaepernick.
The 49ers are set with their starting tackles in Joe Staley and Anthony Davis. But the offense struggled with Jonathan Martin playing right tackle while Davis was dealing with his myriad of injuries. Martin came to San Francisco with an endorsement from the team's old coaching staff and will have to improve drastically to earn confidence from new coordinator Geep Chryst. When Davis was healthy, the 49ers were able to run the ball effectively, including 561 yards combined in the last two weeks of the season.
It might not be a huge need given Staley and Davis are a good pairing, but Martin proved the team would be wise to add competition to back them up. Carter Bykowski, the last tackle the 49ers drafted, was plucked off the team's practice squad in December by the Vikings.