The primary reason, of course, is tailback Frank Gore, who at age 25 is entering the prime of his career and figures to be one of the central offensive figures in the entire division as the 49ers focus on becoming a smash-mouth, ground-oriented team with Mike Singletary now in charge as head coach.
Gore gets strong competition from St. Louis centerpiece Steven Jackson, but Gore is the premier back in the division after becoming the first player in San Francisco's 63-year history to rush for 1,000 yards or more in three consecutive seasons. Gore also has some capable backs behind him that add different dimensions and complement him well.
Jackson also went over 1,000 yards rushing during the final game of the 2008 season and is the only other front-line, star quality running back in the division. But the Rams don't have much behind him.
Edgerrin James is entering the final stages of his quality career and could be on the way out in Arizona, where rookie Tim Hightower emerged as a force early in the year but fell off as the season progressed to the point he had lost his job as the team's featured runner back to James by the time the Cards reached the playoffs.
It has been a long way down from Shaun Alexander in Seattle, which four years later still is looking for a quality replacement for the 2005 NFL MVP in a once-powerful offense that had to rely on its running game last season after its riddled-with-injuries passing game went south.
Here's a look at the NFC West's running backs:
Starter: RB Frank Gore. Backups: RB DeShaun Foster, RB Michael Robinson, RB Thomas Clayton. Injured reserve: FB Zak Keasey.
Unit analysis: Gore has two years remaining on his contract with the 49ers, so he will continue to be the centerpiece of the San Francisco offense. He is a hard-nosed, grinding runner who finished 13th in the NFL with 1,036 yards rushing even though he carried only 240 times and the offensive plan of coordinator Mike Martz seemed to go away from him late in games when he usually is most effective. An effective receiver, Gore once again was among the NFL leaders in total yards from scrimmage despite missing two games with an ankle injury, and he is quickly charging up San Francisco's career rushing chart, where he already ranks fifth after just four NFL seasons. The 49ers did not have a fullback for most of the season after Keasey sustained a torn biceps tendon that ended his season, and that is an area the team will address during the offseason with Keasey likely to return as an exclusive rights free agent. Foster is a scheduled free agent who played relatively well late in the season when Gore was out of action with an ankle sprain. He had a slow start to the season and was a nonfactor in the offense until turning it on and showing his worth over the last half of the season. Robinson is a handy third-down back, but he has yet to prove he's the kind of natural runner who can fill in as the every-down back. He is a downfield receiving threat out of the backfield, however, averaging 11.9 yards on his 17 receptions last season. This may be the year that Clayton, who has been impressive during preseason play during his first two NFL seasons, gets a shot to show what he can do in the backup mix.
SFI rank in division: 1
Starters: RB Edgerrin James, FB Terrelle Smith. Backups: RB Tim Hightower, RB J.J. Arrington, FB Tim Castille.
Unit analysis: James will be 31 in August and would like to play elsewhere. Upset that the team benched him at midseason, James swallowed his pride on the sideline. He was returned to the starting lineup late in the year and looked quick and fresh. He still can be an effective player as he showed down the stretch and during the playoffs, but will he play again for the Cardinals? James ran past Hightower as the team's leading rusher by the end of the season, finishing 20th in the NFC with 514 yards, averaging 3.9 yards a carry with three touchdowns. Hightower is the heir apparent. He has deceiving quickness and speed but he prefers to run over people. He has breakaway ability but tends to dance too much and take negative plays. After a strong start as the starter, his production slipped and he ended his rookie season with 399 yards rushing, averaging just 2.8 yards per carry, though he did finish fifth in the conference with 10 rushing touchdowns. Arrington is a role player who excels on third downs. Smith is an excellent lead blocker but he's in the last year of his deal. That might mean that Castille takes over as the starting fullback next year. The Cardinals ranked dead last in the NFL in rushing last season even though they ranked No. 4 overall in total offense, so their ground game obviously continues to need help.
SFI rank in division: 4
St. Louis Rams
Starter: RB Steven Jackson. Backups: RB Kenneth Darby, RB Antonio Pittman, RB Travis Minor. Injured reserve: RB Brian Leonard.
Unit analysis: Jackson held out for 27 days last summer, and then missed several games because of a groin injury. He went over 1,000 yards rushing in the final game of the season – finishing eighth in the NFC and 12th in the NFL with 1,042 yards rushing on 253 carries with seven touchdowns – and showed how different the team is when he plays. He is a big, powerful back with deceptive agility that also is an excellent receiver out of the backfield. However, it's clear the offense needs a better backup because 2007 second-round pick Leonard is not the answer, nor is Pittman, who showed flashes, but not consistency. Darby was a find as a slasher-type back, and he also showed ability as a receiver. He could be a solid third-down back. Minor might have reached the end of the line with the Rams. There were no true fullbacks on the roster at the end of the season. Finding a true fullback is a necessity. The Rams need to upgrade here to both protect and complement Jackson, who is one of the best around.
SFI rank in division: 2
Starters: RB Maurice Morris, FB Leonard Weaver. Backups: RB Julius Jones, RB T.J. Duckett, RB Justin Forsett, FB Owen Schmitt.
Unit analysis: Jones, a free-agent pickup in the offseason, started the season well, but struggled at times holding onto the ball and eventually lost the starting job to Morris, a favorite of Mike Holmgren, who departed as head coach at the end of the season. However, Morris is a free agent and may not be back next season. The Seahawks have committed to running the ball more next season, with the possibility of Jones and Duckett sharing the load. Jones ended the season as Seattle's leading rusher with 698 yards, averaging a healthy 4.4 yards a carry, but he wasn't as effective as those numbers might suggest. Morris rushed for 574 yards, averaging 4.3 yards a carry, but he did not score a rushing touchdown and the Seahawks got just two TDs from their front-line tandem. With their plethora of backs and passing game lagging, the Seahawks led the division in total rushing yards as a team though they ranked 28th in the NFL and next-to-last in the NFC in total offense. Forsett, who looked good in the preseason last year, may get a chance to run the ball as a change-up back. Weaver also is a free agent, but it appears Seattle would like to have him back. He's a threat both on the ground (4.3 yards per carry) and as a receiver out of the backfield, as the 49ers saw last season when he scored on 43- and 62-yard touchdown receptions in Seattle's October upset win in San Francisco. Schmitt played well when he got an opportunity in his rookie season, giving the Seahawks depth at fullback.
SFI rank in division: 3