Roster breakdown: RBs

SFI breaks down the 49ers' final 53-man roster by unit this week as the team closes in on Sunday's season opener against Atlanta. Today: Running backs

Starters: Kevan Barlow (halfback), Fred Beasley (fullback)

Backups: Terry Jackson, Jasen Isom, Jamal Robertson

Practice squad: Maurice Hicks, Matt Stanley

What's new: Barlow steps in as the featured back to replace Garrison Hearst, who produced three 1,000-yard seasons and led the team in rushing four times during his time in the main role. Isom moves in as the backup fullback, a role handled in previous seasons by Jackson, who will be used more now at halfback.

What's to like: Barlow has great talent and is a unique blend of size, power, shiftiness and football instincts. He turned his December audition last year into a coming out party, finishing with a 1,024-yard season despite just four late-season starts in place of an injured Hearst. That set the stage for this year, where Barlow is in even better shape and appears ready to take on a central role in the offense and on the team in general. He also has displayed leadership and maturity this summer and could become the complete package. Beasley will play a big role in any success Barlow might enjoy, because he's perhaps the best blocking fullback in the NFL and certainly is one of the league's best all-around players at that position after earning his first Pro Bowl berth last year. Jackson is versatile and can help in one-back situations, and Robertson's elusiveness could produce some damage when the Niners throw him backup carries.

What's to wonder about: Despite his flash and potential and great late-season surge last year, Barlow is still somewhat unproven as the featured back, only because he must show he can handle the role over an extended period. He must also display he can take care of the football and be the improved pass blocker he appeared to be this summer. Beasley enters the season with a high ankle sprain that has bothered him for a month, and one of the last things the San Francisco offense needs to see is a gimpy Beasley. If Barlow goes down, there are serious questions whether the Niners have somebody that can adequately take his place over an extended period.

Key preseason stat: Robertson was the Niners' leading preseason rusher for the third consecutive year, finishing with 132 yards rushing and a 4.6 average to hold off a strong challenge from Hicks

The bottom line: The Niners could be an even better running team with the 1-2 punch of Beasley and Barlow in the backfield, but a lot of things must shake out right for that to happen. First, Beasley needs to be in the lineup at full strength, which is unlikely to be the case at the start of the season. Second, the revamped line must do its part up front. Barlow is certainly ready to do the rest, so if the Niners can develop the running aspect of their attack from the get-go, it could prosper quickly and carry the young offense in the early going while opening opportunities for the unproven passing game.

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