SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Replacing the franchise’s all-time leading rusher won’t be easy for the San Francisco 49ers.
With Frank Gore now playing for the Indianapolis Colts, the 49ers face the prospect of fielding a new starting tailback for the first time since 2004. That year, Kevin Barlow led the team with 822 rushing yards. For perspective, Gore rushed for less than 822 yards just once, his rookie season in 2005, and eclipsed 1,000 yards in eight of his 10 seasons with San Francisco.
Gore, 32, elected to leave the team he played with for a decade to join Andrew Luck, whom he believes can win a championship. And with 2,442 rushing attempts throughout his career, Gore’s chances at a ring are dwindling fast. (Yes, local writers have already been preparing stories about Gore's return to the Bay Area for the upcoming Super Bowl to be played in Levi's Stadium.)
Given all the turnover going on in Santa Clara this offseason, Gore’s departure might get overlooked. He was vital to San Francisco’s run of success under Jim Harbaugh, both on the field and in the locker room. He was the team’s most respected and influential player.
That leaves second-year player Carlos Hyde with a chance to fill the massive void left by Gore. Hyde showed some promise as a rookie, but might not have been as consistent as the 49ers would have liked. He averaged 4.0 yards per carry, getting just 83 attempts in back up duty. Hyde missed the season’s final two games with an ankle injury.
Last year was a strange one for many reasons, including San Francisco’s inability to run the ball as effectively as they did in the previous three years. The 49ers ran for fewer than 100 yards as a team in seven games. That happened just three times when they reached the Super Bowl at the end of the 2012 season.
The cumulative numbers for the 49ers’ running game were in line with the previous three years. They averaged 136 yards per game (fourth in the NFL), down slightly from 139.7 in 2013. But that number was a product for 561 combined yards against San Diego and Arizona to wrap up the season. Before those two games, the 49ers averaged 115 yards per game, which would have finished 13th in the league.
So why wasn’t the running game the same?
Injuries were probably the biggest factor. San Francisco was without starting right tackle Anthony Davis for the better part of 10 games, who dealt with hamstring strain, a knee injury and a concussion, forcing Jonathan Martin into the starting lineup, who was a significant downgrade as a run blocker. A leg fracture to starting center Daniel Kilgore also contributed to eight different starting combinations along the offensive line, forcing 20-year-old rookie Marcus Martin into the lineup.
The health issues with the tight ends forced the 49ers to alter their game plan more than once. Vernon Davis wasn’t himself in part because of ankle and back injuries, Vance McDonald appeared in just eight games while dealing with a back issue, while Garrett Celek and Derek Carrier ended the season on injured reserve with ankle and foot injuries, respectively.
Beyond Gore and Hyde, San Francisco was thin at the halfback. They started the year with three on the 53-man roster, but granted former second-round pick LaMichael James his release after the season opener, hurting San Francisco’s depth and return game. James is currently in camp with the Miami Dolphins, after getting three carries in two games when he joined the team after his release from the 49ers.
Bruce Miller has been San Francisco’s only fullback since 2012 after splitting time with Moran Norris as a rookie. Despite an offseason arrest for a domestic dispute, Miller’s job appears to be safe in 2015. He signed a three-year contract extension before last season.
49ers running backs on 90-man roster
Here’s what we know about the running camp battles heading into training camp:
—Hyde is the odds-on favorite to be the No. 1 running back in an attempt to replace Gore. The question becomes how much new offensive coordinator Geep Chryst leans on Reggie Bush, Kendall Hunter and Mike Davis as secondary runners. Hyde typically did his best work in zone-blocking plays, opposed to Gore, who excelled in power schemes. All signs are pointing to San Francisco moving away from power looks and toward zone under new offensive line coach Chris Foerster. That means the offense will rely on mobility and decision making from its offensive lineman, instead of blunt force, which had been a staple in previous seasons. That transition should be easier with Davis and Mike Iupati no longer around.
—Speaking of mobility, the 49ers are also likely to incorporate their running backs into the passing game more often this year. Over the last few seasons, San Francisco had been in the bottom of the league in running back targets, mostly because of Gore’s elite pass blocking skills and picking up the blitz. The acquisition of Reggie Bush, who has 466 receptions in his nine NFL seasons, is a sign the 49ers are hoping to create more mismatches underneath in the passing game, like the Patriots did to the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
—Hunter sustained his second season-ending injury since 2012 last summer when he tore an ACL early on in training camp. It was unfortunate timing for Hunter, because 2014 was the last year of his rookie contract. But the 49ers were so impressed by his recovery and rehab efforts, they signed him to a new one-year deal after the season. Hunter will likely be Bush’s backup as a third-down/change of pace option, with rookie Mike Davis likely becomes Hyde’s understudy.
—The obvious wild card of the group is former Australian rules rugby star Jarryd Hayne, who’s playing football for the first time in 2015. Without pads during the offseason program, it’s been impossible to see how Hayne’s skill set as a rugby player translates to running back. But physically, Hayne has strength and speed to look the part. It’s likely Hayne gets reps returning kickoffs and punts in the preseason, while honing the fundamentals as a running back in Chryst’s offense. Perhaps more important than learning to run the ball, Hayne must grasp his responsibilities in pass protection. Otherwise, he won’t see the field on offense. The 49ers are likely hoping Hayne can sneak through waivers to the practice squad once final cuts are made after the preseason, giving him more time to learn the game and develop.
—Fullback Trey Millard, who “red shirted” last season after sustaining an ACL tear during his final season at Oklahoma, is making $446,787 this year, compared to Miller’s $1.746 million salary. It’s unlikely to happen, but if Millard impresses in camp and proves he can play up to Miller’s level, the salary savings will be enticing for the 49ers to consider. There’s also the chance Miller faces a league-imposed suspension after being charged with a domestic violence misdemeanor in May stemming from his March arrest following a dispute with his former fiancée.
—The 49ers are Kendall Gaskins’ fourth organization since joining the league as an undrafted free agent in 2013 with the Buffalo Bills. He spent all of last season on San Francisco’s practice squad. The 49ers typically give a young running back the bulk of preseason carries to keep the others fresh, which will likely be Gaskins’ opportunity to prove he’s worth a roster spot with San Francisco, or elsewhere.