Season preview positional analysis: RBs

SFI will break down the 49ers by position leading up to Monday night's season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, with key questions facing each unit, strengths and weaknesses, key stats and facts, key arrivals and departures and the bottom line regarding whether the team is better or worse at the position compared to last season. Today: Running backs

The 49ers placed the hopes of their rushing game on the surgically-repaired shoulders of Frank Gore last season, and they were rewarded for their faith in a major way.

Gore emerged as one of the top young running backs in the NFL, and he took San Francisco's ground game with him to the top while becoming the first 49er ever to lead the NFC in rushing with a franchise-record 1,695 yards.

What can he do for an encore? Gore's glad you asked. He has set his sights on a 2,000-yard season in 2007, not to mention Eric Dickerson's NFL record of 2,105 yards that now has stood for 22 seasons.

With bulldozing fullback Moran Norris laying out defenders in front of Gore, the 49ers are set at running back as long as they can keep their Pro Bowl stud healthy.

But can Gore stay healthy again for an entire season?
After having surgery to repair a torn labrum in each of his shoulders during the offseason, Gore made it through the rigors of a 16-game season virtually unscathed while setting a franchise record with 312 carries. He also led the 49ers with 61 receptions, and his 373 touches rank second in franchise history. He was a durable sparkplug that wore down opponents and always appeared to be at his strongest in the fourth quarter. But after having major surgery in college to repair torn ligaments in each of his knees, Gore's body has a lot of wear and tear on it for a third-year veteran. Gore is a player who wants the rock and never wants to leave games, but the 49ers have to make sure to use him wisely and somehow limit the amount of punishment he absorbs.

Does that mean more touches in 2007 for other running backs?
It should. The 49ers spent their spring and summer practice sessions attempting to groom a true backup for Gore with shifty Maurice Hicks and powerful Michael Robinson emerging as the top candidates ahead of sixth-round draft pick Thomas Clayton. The NFL's preseason rushing leader, Clayton was released at the final roster cutdown but cleared waivers and was signed back to the 49ers' practice squad for further development. Hicks and Robinson combined for 67 carries while splitting time as Gore's backup last year, and the 49ers would like to see a significant increase in that total this year. Gore won't like it, and it may affect his chances of reaching monster rushing totals, but it's what the team needs to do to protect its best player and keep him fresh.

Has Gore already reached his potential, or is there still more to come?
Some observers think Gore has maxed out his potential and will have trouble reaching his record rushing totals of 2006, when he averaged a healthy 5.4 yards per carry - one of the best averages in NFL history for a back that gained so many yards. In actuality, Gore is both leaner and meaner this season as he shed five pounds in the offseason to increase his quickness and ability to finish runs. Gore says he was only getting started in 2006 and has big things in store this season, and with Norris establishing himself last year as one of the league's best blocking fullbacks in his own personal breakout season, the 49ers promise to field one of the NFL's most lethal backfield combinations. The broken hand Gore suffered on the first padded practice of training camp is healed, and the silver lining in that injury is that it kept Gore fresh throughout the preseason and he is anxious and ready to roll now that the games that count begin.

The bottom line: The tandem of Gore and Norris surprised a lot of people last year, but there's no reason it shouldn't be even better this year as both young players continue to emerge as they approach the prime of their careers. This unit clearly is among the strongest - if not the very strongest - units on the team, at least as far as starters are concerned.


Starters for season opener: Frank Gore (RB), Moran Norris (FB)
Reserves: Maurice Hicks, Michael Robinson
Key new arrivals: None
Key departures: Chris Hetherington (FB)
Running backs coach: Bishop Harris, third season with team, 14th year of NFL experience

Strengths: A Pro Bowl starter at tailback in Frank Gore, a strong inside runner with good breakaway ability who's a complete player at the position. A 250-pound crusher at fullback in Moran Norris, who also came into his own in 2006. A diversity of backup options behind Gore in Maurice Hicks and Michael Robinson.

Weaknesses: Gore, who missed the entire preseason with his hand injury, has a history of major injuries, and the 49ers don't have a proven backup who can come in and carry the load should Gore go down.

Fact check: In six games against NFC West opponents in 2006, Frank Gore rushed for 755 yards and six touchdowns while average 5.8 yards per carry. While averaging 126 yards per game against divisional foes, Gore had 22 carries of 10 yards or more.

Vital stat I: 9: 100-yard games by Frank Gore in 2006, breaking the franchise record of six previously held by Garrison Hearst (1998) and Roger Craig (1988).

Vital stat II: 2,172: Rushing yards produced by the 49ers in 2006, which placed them sixth in the NFL in rushing offense.

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