49ers Running Back Breakdown: Full Evaluation and Depth Chart Analysis
Led by a mauling offensive line and talented group of running backs, the Niners ranked fourth in rushing yards per game in 2012.
Colin Kaepernick's dual-threat ability also played in a major role in the rushing assault. The 49ers featured more read-option plays with Kaepernick behind center, and it resulted in a more explosive ground attack.
Let's take a look at the top five running backs in Red and Gold. What will their roles be in 2013?
Frank Gore: The Starter
Gore is quietly making a case for a Hall of Fame induction. He ranks 34th in all-time rushing yards and third among active players.
However, he just turned 30. Is he due to slow down?
He showed no signs of slowing down in 2012.
Gore rushed for 1,214 yards on a 4.7 yards-per-carry average—his best mark since 2009. He was even better in the playoffs, accumulating 319 rushing yards on a 5.1 per-carry average in three games.
Gore doesn't have the speed of a Chris Johnson or the power of an Adrian Peterson, but his combination of vision, patience and elusiveness makes him one of the most efficient runners in the NFL.
He's also a quality receiver out of the backfield, and he does everything expected of a running back when picking up oncoming blitzers.
In the 2012 regular season, Gore placed ninth in Pro Football Focus' overall ranking for qualified running backs (subscription required). Until he clearly loses a step, he should be San Francisco's starter.
LaMichael James: Change of Pace
James appeared in San Francisco's last seven games (playoffs included) in 2012, and he immediately showed why the Niners used a second-round pick on him.
He has the quickness to attack the edges of the defense, which can be absolutely deadly with an athletic quarterback running the read-option.
At the 46-second mark of the video to the right, you get a glimpse of James' explosiveness. Before some Falcons defenders know he has the ball, he's around the right side of the line with a straight line to the end zone.
However, questions remain about James' ball security and durability.
The diminutive back had only 38 carries last year, and it's yet to be determined whether he can stay healthy for a full NFL season. He also had several minor injuries in his career at the University of Oregon, but he played through them to become the school's all-time leading rusher.
As for ball security, he had two fumbles last year, one of which was recovered by the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
Still, with Kendall Hunter's health in question, James may be relied upon heavily as San Francisco's No. 2 running back in 2013.
Kendall Hunter: Wild Card
According to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, Hunter was running sprints in mid-April, but he could not make cuts yet. Still, Hunter seems to be on the right track to return for training camp from the torn Achilles he sustained in November.
And what a lift it would be if he was at full strength for the 2013 season.
Hunter actually had a better rushing score on Pro Football Focus' rankings than Gore did in 2011 (subscription required). And last year, Hunter averaged 5.2 yards per carry.
He deserves to be mentioned as a possible starting replacement for Gore down the road.
The issues with Hunter are his porous run-blocking and health concerns. In blitz pickup, he often chops at bigger defensive players, which leaves San Francisco's quarterback vulnerable at times.
I've already alluded to the health concerns. If the Niners don't feel he's ready for the 2013 season, they could put him on the temporary IR until midseason to give Jewel Hampton a roster spot or add more depth to another position.
Anthony Dixon: Short-Yardage Back
Dixon should make the roster over Hampton and any other unexpected challengers due to his special teams contributions.
The 2009 sixth-round pick won't see the field much on offense, but he still might be the best option for the Niners on a 3rd-and-1 play due to his powerful running style.
San Francisco called on him against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game, and he delivered.
Dixon should settle in as the third- or fourth-string running back for the 2013 season.
Marcus Lattimore: The Future
Will Lattimore suit up in 2013?
Your guess is as good as any at this point.
Which running back will emerge as No. 2 option behind Frank Gore in 2013?
According to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, head coach Jim Harbaugh hinted at giving Lattimore a year to recover from the torn ACL, MCL and PCL he sustained in October.
That being said, the 49ers could put him on the temporary IR (only one player per team is allowed the spot) and activate him around midseason in case several running backs get injured.
Or, he could be like Adrian Peterson and come back in 2013 better than ever...but I wouldn't bet on it.
With all the running back talent on the San Francisco roster, I'm guessing Lattimore does sit out the entire season. He has the talent to be San Francisco's starter down the road.
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