Draft outlook: Running back

Now that Kevan Barlow has taken over for Garrison Hearst as the 49ers' featured running back, the team must fill Barlow's previous role as a top complementary back who offers no drop in performance when he's in the game. Is Jamal Robertson that player? Or will the Niners be better served to find a new young RB talent in the draft, where they haven't selected a back in two years after taking at least one in each of the previous six years?

Niners officials have confirmed that they must look at the possibility of selecting a backup running back, even though the team has more pressing needs at other positions and just signed the 25-year-old Barlow to a five-year, $20 million contract that gives the Niners the security of having a premier back with star potential on the roster for years to come.

But, like most NFL teams, the San Francisco offense needs a quality backup to spell Barlow and be available as injury insurance. Robertson, despite his lack of size, displayed some real ability to make things happen on the ground while backing up Barlow during the final quarter of 2003. He finished the season averaging 4.3 yards a carry, which was the same as Hearst.

But, in a telling statistic, Robertson finished 2003 without any receptions. He dropped several passes that were right in his hands during the final month of the season, proving to be a liability as a release valve in San Francisco's passing game. Robertson no doubt is working on that aspect of his game, but at this point, the Niners can't count on him being their No. 2 guy at tailback.

Robertson currently is listed second on the team's depth chart, with veteran Terry Jackson and youngster Maurice Hicks listed behind him.

Jackson displayed fine hands and versatility before his 2002 knee injury, but he was not given even one carry last season by new coach Dennis Erickson. The special teams standout no longer figures into the equation at tailback and, though Hicks currently is averaging a healthy 5.2 yards a carry in NFL Europe, he can't be expected to make any impact this season. Robertson was the NFL Europe offensive MVP in 2002, but he didn't begin making any impact on the running game until last year.

So the Niners likely will be on the lookout in the middle rounds for a back to pick up the slack when Barlow needs a breather.

There are several prospects who might be found there who could fit in nicely to the San Francisco system. It is not a strong draft for running back prospects, and only Oregon State's Steven Jackson and Virginia Tech's Kevin Jones are considered sure first-round selections. That doesn't work in the 49ers favor, and Michigan's Chris Perry - who might be a nice fit for the 49ers - also figures to be long gone before the Niners consider taking a running back.

But the Niners were able to get Barlow in the third round of an RB-rich draft in 2001, and backs such as Ohio State's Maurice Clarett, Oklahoma State's Tatum Bell and Arkansas Cedric Cobbs could be available there this year.

The Niners probably won't be shooting that high for a running back, particularly if none of the aforementioned names are available. On the second day of the draft, the Niners will consider a selection of lesser-regarded backs, and will look for a prospect who can make the team and legitimately challenge for the backup role up until their final selection.

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