Barlow Jet-tisoned

Those trade rumors swirling out of New York earlier this week weren't just speculation after all. The 49ers pulled the trigger early Sunday on perhaps their biggest trade since Mike Nolan arrived as head coach 19 months ago, sending sixth-year running back Kevan Barlow – the No. 7 career rushing leader in team history – to the New York Jets for a fourth-round selection in the 2007 NFL draft.

Nolan had just said on Saturday that Barlow – the team's starting tailback since late in the 2003 season – would start Sunday's preseason game against the Oakland Raiders ahead of second-year player Frank Gore, who has out-performed Barlow so far this summer after becoming the first rookie to lead the team in rushing in 15 years when he took away that distinction from Barlow late last season.

But the Jets – desperate for a front-line featured back with aging Curtis Martin's career in jeopardy – obviously raised the stakes when coming back to the 49ers with another offer since early Saturday.

"They had called a week or so ago and were flirting with it, but they were looking throughout the league at different players and there were no serious talks at that time," Nolan said Sunday. "But they called yesterday and wanted to step things up. We feel that in our situation that we have some depth at running back and so it was an opportunity for us to make the move."

The Jets certainly were ready.

"We have been impressed with Kevan's production in both the running and passing game," Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum said. "We feel Kevan will complement our running back group, and he will come in and compete for playing time."

The trade remains contingent on Barlow - who already has left the 49ers - passing a physical with the Jets. New York nixed a trade last week with Cleveland after running back Lee Suggs failed his physical with the Jets after being traded to New York. The Jets sent Suggs back to the Browns, and he practiced with Cleveland the very next day.

That's about the same time the Jets first came calling for Barlow, and Tannenbaum's comments Sunday suggested that the draft pick the 49ers receive could be contingent on what kind of numbers Barlow produces in New York. But Nolan confirmed that the 49ers received a fourth-rounder - there's no conditions attached to the pick - and he seemed satisfied making this move was the right thing for the 49ers to do.

"This is a great opportunity for Kevan because of New York's need at running back," Nolan said. "Kevan has been committed to our program and done well. We just feel we have some depth there and it is a healthy group at this time, so we felt we could make this move."

Gore now becomes the 49ers' primary featured back, and the team has confidence he can hold up to the pounding after he had surgery to repair torn labrums in each of his shoulders during the offseason. Gore also had major surgery to repair torn ligaments in each of his knees during his college career at the University of Miami.

But the emergence of fourth-round draft pick Michael Robinson as a backfield option helped make Barlow expendable, even though Barlow was expected to hold onto his starting role this year while Gore got a larger share of the carries that would be spread between the two.

The Niners also are high on what third-year veteran Maurice Hicks can offer them as a change-of-pace back, and Barlow's departure improves the roster status of eighth-year veteran Terry Jackson, San Francisco's special teams captain who always has performed well over the years in his limited opportunities as a third-down back.

Nolan had told Barlow on Tuesday that the Jets had inquired about his services, at the time reassuring Barlow that he was not on the trading block. Nolan also said then – cryptically, as it turns out – that the coach "wouldn't reassure anybody that they'd be with this team right now. I'm not going to assure anybody of that."

Good thing, in Barlow's case.

Barlow, perhaps unwittingly, was seen and heard in the team locker room late this week listening to a version of "New York, New York" on his IPOD. This was after Barlow had told reporters that Nolan told him on Tuesday not to "even pay no attention to (the rumors)."

As late as Friday, Nolan said discussions with the Jets never got to the point where a serious offer was made.

"They did not offer anything," Nolan said then. "We talked about that and some other players at positions which were typically new. There was absolutely no serious offer made."

When the subject was broached regarding how much value Barlow should put into those statements by Nolan, considering all the trades and movement of holdover veterans that has taken place since Nolan and his crew took over control of the team, Barlow said when it was suggested he might be next, "I'm not going to even comment on that question. I just told you. I'm not worried about it. Coach Nolan told me, he told you. So I'm not worried about it. I'm here … I hope."

Instead, Barlow's career in San Francisco ends with unfulfilled expectations. A third-round draft pick in 2001, Barlow immediately flashed power and strength and breakaway ability during his first two seasons in the league, which he spent as Garrison's Hearst's understudy.

Barlow took over as the featured back late in the 2003 season after Hearst was sidelined in December with injuries. Rushing for 433 yards in four December starts – including two 154-yard efforts – Barlow finished the season with a team-leading 1,024 yards rushing on just 201 carries, a 5.1 average, and was given a five-year, $20 million contract extension as a restricted free agent a few months later by former 49ers general manager Terry Donahue.

But as the 49ers stripped down their roster, became a team in transition and plummeted to the bottom of the NFL, Barlow never lived up to his potential as the featured back. He rushed for 822 yards on 244 carries in 2004, when his 3.4 average per carry was the worst among NFL starting running backs. Barlow averaged just 3.3 yards per carry last season, when he was inactive for three of San Francisco's games in December because of a knee problem, then placed on injured reserve for the final week of the season.

Barlow didn't play again in 2005 after gaining 33 yards on 11 carries in a Dec. 11 game at Seattle, and he finished the season with 581 yards – allowing Gore to pass him in the final week of the season to become San Francisco's leading rusher. Gore rushed for 108 yards in the season finale against Houston to finish the season with 608 yards.

Gore has asserted himself as a featured back this summer since returning from his shoulder surgeries, but San Francisco coaches have remained high on Barlow, who shed 10 pounds since last year and has looked quicker this summer.

But, with their surplus at running back, the 49ers could wait for the Jets – or any other team – to come up with an offer attractive enough to make the deal. As Nolan said earlier in the week, "It's always nice when someone calls you and says, ‘We need this from you.' When they come knocking on the door, you usually get a little better deal for yourself than if you had knocked on someone else's door."

The Jets came knocking again Sunday, and now they have a young running back who ostensibly is entering his prime, despite the mixed results of his time in San Francisco, which Barlow leaves behind with 3,614 career rushing yards – the seventh-highest total of any running back ever to don the red and gold.

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