Expect to see more Barlow, less Hearst in 2002

Garrison Hearst got the big free-agent contract Wednesday. But expect to see Kevan Barlow get more carries for the 49ers during the upcoming season.

Not more than Hearst, of course. The Niners definitively marked Hearst as their starting tailback in 2002 when they re-signed him to a six-year, $20 million deal. But they had a contingency plan already in place had Hearst been persuaded to leave for a better deal. That plan had the position going to Barlow, the exciting rookie who rushed for 512 yards as Hearst's backup last season.

The Niners spent the 2001 season carefully grooming Barlow to replace Hearst and become the next star attraction in their West Coast offense. But whether Hearst left the team or not, San Francisco would need a veteran tailback to add stability at the position. When it became evident that Hearst wanted to stay with the Niners, the team got the best of both worlds. San Francisco was able to retain Hearst as a productive starter - albeit at a high price - to give the promising Barlow more time to develop.

Hearst got some big money up front - a $3 million signing bonus - but that will be spread out evenly over the length of the contract. And while he stands to make $9 million over the next three seasons, his deal realistically is for only one or two more seasons, as most long-term free-agent contracts are in this age of the NFL. Barlow is the future, and his role is likely to expand this season. Last year, the tailback carries were distributed between Hearst and Barlow almost exactly by a two-thirds to one-third ratio. Hearst had 252 carries and Barlow had 125. Expect that ratio to become closer to 60-40 this year, and perhaps even 50-50 should Barlow continue the progress he displayed last season.

When Barlow's name was mentioned on a conference call regarding Hearst's deal late Wednesday afternoon, Niners general manager Terry Donahue said, "We're excited and very, very happy about Kevan Barlow. (Hearst's deal) is absolutely nothing negative on Kevan Barlow."

Barlow made an early push at Hearst's starting job last year, but Hearst was able to hold him off as Hearst returned to his former Pro Bowl form. Even after inking a big-money free agent, Donahue made it clear tailback still is a two-player position for the Niners. "It means they will continue to work together and continue to produce yards for the Niners," Donahue said. "We're hoping to continue developing Kevan. We're going to need both running backs."

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