49ers preparing for the draft: RB

As the 49ers prepare for the April 26-27 NFL Draft, here's an analysis of the team at the running back position, looking at San Francisco's draft needs and why the Niners may or may not use one of their six selections at this position, what rounds in which the team should think about a running back and some of the prospects available that the team may consider.

Current players: RB Frank Gore, RB Michael Robinson, RB DeShaun Foster, RB Thomas Clayton, FB Moran Norris, FB Zak Keasey

State of the position: Despite everything that went wrong with San Francisco's offense in 2007, defending NFC rushing champion Frank Gore still managed to overcome a few nagging injuries and suspect play all around him to have a solid season that firmly established him as one of the elite backs in the NFC, if not the entire NFL. Gore is a legitimate threat both on the ground and as a receiving option, but defenses ganged up against him last year and that seemed to affect his play before he got it going as the season progressed and finished strong, rushing for 563 yards over the final six games of the season, carrying the offense with him. Even though he was the team's only effective weapon and opposing defenses were designed to stop him, Gore still rushed for 1,102 yards and five touchdowns with a 4.2 averaged. Those numbers figure to improve this year. Gore should fit in perfectly and become even more dynamic in new coordinator Mike Martz's offense, and the 49ers acquired a good complement for him in DeShaun Foster, a back who's good enough to carry the load in his own right. Foster should help take some pressure and wear and tear off Gore, which promises to make him even more effective and give the 49ers a formidable 1-2 punch at the featured back position. The arrival of Foster means a reduced role in the backfield for Robinson, who showed some promise in relief of Gore last year, rushing for 121 yards and a nice 4.7 average. The 49ers figure to find a few spots for Robinson, but the Gore/Foster tandem will dominate the workload. The 49ers also have Thomas Clayton - the NFL's leading rusher during the preseason last year who spent the entire 2007 season on the team's practice squad - and he'll push for a roster spot this year. Moran Norris didn't have nearly the season in 2007 that he had the year before, but he can be a formidable lead blocker and it will be interesting to see how he'll be used in the Martz attack, which spreads the defense and uses a lot of one-back sets. This is one of the strongest areas on the offense, if not the entire team.

Position draft need priority: Low

Last running back drafted: Thomas Clayton, 2006 sixth round, No. 186 overall selection

Why 49ers will draft a running back: You can never have enough good running backs, and there are always players at this position that can be found of high value in the later rounds after the premier prospects have been gobbled up. Running backs can be developed, and they also have a short shelf life, so it's good to keep new blood rolling in.

Why the 49ers won't draft a running back: They don't need one. They have a star in his prime in Gore, a backup of starter quality in Foster and another capable runner in Robinson, with Clayton waiting in the wings and trying to get his shot after a year of developing on the practice squad.

When to address: Sixth or seventh round

Who's out there: As usual, there's some quality prospects out there with Arkansas junior Darren McFadden being one of the better running backs to come out over the past decade. He has big-time star potential, and four other juniors - Illinois' Rashard Mendenhall, Texas' Jamaal Charles, Arkansas' Felix Jones and Oregon's Jonathan Stewart - also rate near the top of the list. The 49ers, of course, won't be on the hunt for any of those prospects and won't draft a running back on the first day unless somebody they have rated highly takes a landslide drop and falls to them. That's unlikely to happen, but the 49ers might be interested if a third/fourth-round talent is still there when they're picking in the sixth and seventh round. There are all kinds of promising prospects who could drop that far and interest the Niners, such as Tulane's Matt Forte, Central Florida's Kevin Smith, Rutgers' Ray Rice, West Virginia's Steve Slaton, USC's Chauncey Washington and Michigan's Mike Hart, among several others.


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