The San Francisco 49ers made a surprising but excellent move by drafting Oregon's LaMichael James. And the former Duck plans on making plays in 2012. But so do the other talented running backs on the stacked 49ers roster.
Frank Gore is the undisputed starter at the running back position. He has had an excellent career and had a great season in 2011. But Gore will be competing for touches this season. How couldn't he? The 49ers brought in a two-time Super Bowl champion in Brandon Jacobs, and when he is in form, Jacobs is one of the game's toughest runners.
The 49ers also have Rock Cartwright, Anthony Dixon and Kendall Hunter on their roster. Cartwright is more of a special teams player and shouldn't compete for too many carries. Dixon is a decent back but only rushed for 87 yards in 2011. But Hunter is young, hungry, talented and proven.
So let the 2012 running back competition begin.
James was one of the premier backs in the draft. And since San Francisco used a second-round pick on him, they will give him touches. James will be expected to be a playmaker, but Gore has proven to be one. Gore has rushed for over 1,000 yards in five of his seven seasons. But Jacobs brings experience, toughness and emotional leadership from New York.
Jim Harbaugh has put the 49ers into a good situation. He has a Pro Bowler in Gore, a winner in Jacobs, potential in Hunter and playmaking abilities in James. All that's left to do is the hardest part of all—divide carries.
Gore deserves the most carries of the backs, especially off a 1,000-yard season. Jacobs is a back who wants the ball as much as possible, and his bruising style makes him hard to ignore. Hunter worked hard in 2011, rushing for over 400 yards in limited carries, and has earned some touches for this season. But James wasn't taken in the second round to sit on the bench or solely return kicks.
The 49ers also made an effort to be an aerial threat. They made a run at Peyton Manning and failed. They signed Randy Moss and drafted A.J. Jenkins in the first round. Quarterback Alex Smith had a solid season last year and now has more weapons to work with.
Although the running game won't be ignored, San Francisco has certainly made an effort to be a good passing team. This will lead to a decrease of running plays, even though their backfield is as solid as ever.
So expect Gore to get the majority on the carries. Jacobs should get short-yardage carries and should be a good red-zone back. About 75 percent of the carries will be split between Gore and Jacobs. Hunter may be used as a change-of-pace back, but figures to see diminished production. James will be given opportunities to not only carry the ball, but he be a threat in the passing game.
No matter how the carries are divided, the running backs will each be unsatisfied. Each back will want more carries and will want to prove they deserve a bigger role. And that is a great thing for San Francisco. Each running back will compete for carries; they won't be given. Competition will make everyone better, and they will push each other to be the best they can be.
So whichever running back gets his number called on game day, expect him to be playing at a high level. Each back will want to make the most of their opportunities. And if one underwhelms, there are plenty of backs willing to show they can do better.
Harbaugh did an excellent thing by stocking talent in the 49ers backfield. With all of the talent, somebody will emerge as the starter. Will Gore keep his job or will Jacobs take away carries? There are lots of scenarios and a possible running back by committee. But one thing is certain: the 49ers figure to have a feared ground game come September.