Frank Gore is still the 49ers' top running back
The San Francisco 49ers have a very crowded backfield as they head into the 2012 regular season. In addition to starter Frank Gore, the 49ers also have Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon as holdovers from last season.
The 49ers also brought in free agents Brandon Jacobs from the New York Giants and Rock Cartwright from the Oakland Raiders. In addition, LaMichael James was drafted in the second round and is an extremely explosive threat out of the backfield.
Starting fullback Bruce Miller is also a lock to make the roster. Miller, a seventh-round draft pick in 2011, surprised everyone with his rapid transition from a collegiate defensive end to a fullback in the pro ranks.
Will the 49ers carry seven running backs?
This is a very real possibility, as the two players who may be on the bubble have multiple assets they bring to the table. Cartwright is an outstanding special teams player and Dixon is also a solid special teams performer and has learned the fullback position.
If the 49ers decide to keep only six running backs, my gut feeling is that Cartwright will stick and Dixon will be released. I am fully aware that Dixon has had a good preseason, but Jacobs has largely usurped his role as a ball-carrier.
Injuries could play a role, and if any players the 49ers are counting on for special teams are unable to play, that could also ensure roster spots for both Cartwright and Dixon.
Whether it's six or seven running backs, head coach Jim Harbaugh will have to juggle the workload in order to keep everyone happy and get the most out of his talent.
This brings us to the next question: How will Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman split the carries between the large stable of running backs the 49ers have?
To answer this question, let's first look at 2011, which will give us some insight on the overall numbers. The top three backs last year—Gore, Hunter and Dixon—combined for 423 carries. Gore led the way with 282 rushing attempts, which is 67 percent of the opportunities.
The 49ers offense should be a lot more potent in 2012. If we assume an increase in productivity and fewer three-and-outs, we can also assume a 10 percent increase in the total number of carries to about 465 for the top four running backs.
In 2011, Gore rushed for 1,211 yards and a 4.3 yards-per-carry average. He also played in 15 of the Niners' 16 regular-season games.
I believe Harbaugh would like to slightly decrease Gore's workload, which could keep him fresher for the playoffs. If Gore gets 50 percent of the carries, he will still have roughly 230 rushing attempts. With a 4.4 yards-per-carry average, that would net Gore over 1,000 yards for the sixth time in his career.
Hunter, who had 26 percent of the carries in 2011, has looked very strong in the preseason. I think Harbaugh will give Hunter more chances this year, and he may see roughly 32 percent of the carries. That would give him 148 carries for the year. I expect Hunter and James to make a positive impact in the passing game as well.
James, who is currently battling an injury, is a big-play threat. He is extremely explosive and a threat to score whenever he touches the ball. James' issues pertain to familiarity with the offense and his ability to stay healthy.
If Harbaugh and Roman can find a way to get James the ball five times per game, that would give him a chance to make some big plays. I think James can be even more effective as a receiver out of the backfield, so if he gets two or three carries per game and is targeted on two or three pass plays, he will prove to be very valuable.
If we count on James for 40 carries this season, that leaves roughly 47 carries for Jacobs, who will be the 49ers' short-yardage specialist. I do not look for Dixon or Cartwright to get many attempts.
The key to these numbers will be the health of the players. If, for example, Gore or Hunter are forced to miss any significant playing time, the number of carries for all of the running backs could be changed dramatically.
The positive news is that under Harbaugh and Roman, the 49ers have the intelligence and creativity to get the ball into the hands of the players where they can do the most damage.
I am excited to see how the 49ers offense comes together this year. In addition to the continued growth of Alex Smith, I believe the keys for the 49ers success on offense will be to stay healthy and also get consistent play along the offensive line.