Of all the position battles set to play out during the offseason for the San Francisco 49ers, the toughest one to call is perhaps at the running back spot.
That may come as something of a surprising statement given that Frank Gore, the 49ers' all-time leading rusher, is still going strong.
However, at 31 years of age, Gore is ancient in modern-day tailback terms and will likely need more assistance from the No. 2 guy if he is to remain as effective in 2014.
The good news for the Niners and their fans is that San Francisco has a plethora of quality backs set to fight it out for the lion's share of playing time behind Gore.
But which of those players will win the contest to be Gore's primary deputy.
Here, I select my prospective victor from what figures to be a fascinating offseason competition.
Since being drafted in 2011, Kendall Hunter has not had to do much to cement his status as Gore's No. 2.
That situation is certain to change in 2014, with a further two backs joining Hunter and LaMichael James in the mix for reps in relief of Gore.
And both of the backs have come into the pros following magnificent collegiate careers.
Marcus Lattimore was touted as arguably the best running back in the 2013 draft, only for his stock to fall after sustaining a second serious knee injury in his final season with the South Carolina Gamecocks.
That allowed the 49ers to select an extremely exciting player in the fourth round and stash Lattimore on the reserve/non-football injury list for the 2013 season while he continued his rehabilitation.
Lattimore's recovery is all but completed now, meaning that San Francisco will have the option of deploying a back who possesses an intriguing blend of speed, vision and elusiveness.
It would be fair to argue that Lattimore would be a lock to earn a high number of carries were he a member of most other teams in the NFL.
This is certainly not the case with the 49ers, who boosted a ground game that was No. 4 in the league last term by bringing in Ohio State's Carlos Hyde in the second round of this year's draft.
For a team whose offensive blueprint is based around wearing opponents down with the run, Hyde's appeal to the 49ers is not difficult to understand.
Hyde enjoyed the best year of his spell with the Buckeyes in his final campaign in Columbus while using the kind of physical downhill running style that should have head coach Jim Harbaugh—an unashamed disciple of Michigan legend Bo Schembechler—salivating.
Throw in the presence of the exhilarating but apparently unsettled speedster James and the stage is set for a fascinating four-way duel.
The victor: Carlos Hyde
He may be a rookie, but in my mind, there is little doubt that Hyde is the heir apparent to Gore and the back most likely to win the No. 2 role.
Discounting the others
Before analyzing why Hyde is the best candidate to take the primary backup role behind Gore's, let's look at why the other backs in the picture will not beat him to the job.
Heading into training camp, it is Hunter who will be considered to have the inside track following three years of dependable service.
In his time in San Francisco, he has shown flashes of developing into a top-tier tailback in the NFL, rushing for over 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns with an average of 4.6 yards per carry.
However, Hunter is entering the final year in his contract with the 49ers, and although he may be keen to impress to earn a new deal, the prospects of him remaining in San Francisco beyond the end of the 2014 campaign appear slim.
That does not leave a career backup like Hunter in a very strong position to earn an extension.
The Niners will not neglect Hunter based on his contract situation; still, it is more realistic that San Francisco opts to afford more playing time to longer-term investments such as Hyde, Lattimore and James.
Lattimore may be considered by many to be the best option for the second running back spot, primarily because he was viewed as a can't-miss prospect prior to the second of his two devastating injuries.
Had he not suffered a dislocated knee in October 2012, then Lattimore may have been the first back off the board in the 2013 draft.
Instead, he slipped down the boards and into the grasp of the 49ers, whose fans can afford to be excited at the prospect of finally seeing Lattimore hit the field after a long time on the sidelines.
The combination of skills Lattimore possesses is frightening, and while there are concerns over his future as a pro, it is difficult to get away from the fact that—despite his horrendous luck in staying healthy—this is a player who, per Sports-Reference.com, was still able put up over 2,600 rushing yards and score 41 touchdowns from scrimmage.
Still, those concerns, which predominantly surround his durability, remain valid, especially when you take into account that Lattimore has not participated in a full-contact practice session since his most recent injury.
Last month, Lattimore told Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today that his recovery is going well and that he is targeting Gore's starting job; however, he concedes that he needs to practice getting tackled before he can determine how his rehabilitation has progressed:
When I take a few hits and get back up. After that, I know it's alright. So that will be the point. But right now, I'm just growing my confidence by just feeling every movement, reading the blocks of my offensive linemen, catching the ball and making sudden movements without thinking about it.
Lattimore evidently understands and is mindful that patience will play a key role in his return to action and adjustment to life as an active player in the NFL.
The first test will be to see whether his knee can stand up to the demands of a physical practice and, more importantly, a preseason game.
Providing Lattimore comes through those examinations, there is little to stop a player of his calibre contributing and competing for that No. 2 spot as he looks to carve out the career he deserves following the setbacks that have dogged his attempts to make it in the NFL.
It must not be forgotten, though, that Lattimore has not played a down in over 18 months.
Therefore, it is fair to expect it to take some time for Lattimore to hit his stride in the pros, handing the advantage to the likes of Hunter and Hyde in this intriguing fight for snaps.
One player Lattimore should be able to beat in the competition for playing time is James.
James' role with the 49ers appears to be set in stone following two seasons in which he has barely registered as an offensive factor, with San Francisco opting to leave him on the bench for the most part of his early NFL career.
A player with frightening speed and athleticism, James has been limited to 39 carries in his first two seasons in San Francisco.
San Francisco found a use for James midway through last season, handing him the kick and punt return duties after Kyle Williams was waived.
James solidified an area that had previously been one of concern for the 49ers, ranking at No. 16 among all return men in the league, per PFF.
The 2012 second-round pick has been taking a lot of reps as a punt returner during the offseason and, according to David Fucillo of Niners Nation, has looked sharp in doing so.
It may seem like a waste, but particularly with Hyde and Lattimore entering the fray, the only way James is going to get to showcase his talents is in the third facet of the game.
Making the case for Hyde
There are a variety of factors that may prevent Hunter, Lattimore and James from taking the spot as the No. 2 back.
So why is Hyde the best candidate to serve as Gore's understudy in 2014?
For starters, Hyde has the best skill set of any of the backs on the roster aside from Gore.
At 6'0" and 235 pounds, Hyde has an ideal frame for the position and uses that to perfection. He is a physical, determined runner who lowers the pads in preparation for impact and finishes runs.
And yet while he excels in between the tackles, Hyde is much more than just a power runner.
Hyde can contribute as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, making 16 grabs for 147 yards and three touchdowns in 2013, according to Sports-Reference.com.
What has helped Gore succeed over the years in San Francisco is that he has been a valuable player in the three areas that are key to the progress of any running back in the NFL: rushing, receiving and blocking.
Indeed, one of the main reasons why Gore is so well regarded is because of his outstanding ability to pick up blitzes and help the 49ers in pass protection.
Hyde may be a long way from Gore's level in terms of his blocking skills, but he displayed a capability and willingness to make an impact in looking after the quarterback in his magnificent stint as a Buckeye.
The all-around ability of Hyde was encapsulated perfectly by his stunning performance in the 40-35 Orange Bowl defeat at the hands of Clemson in January.
In that encounter, Hyde rushed for 113 yards and a touchdown while catching two passes, including one for a go-ahead score in the fourth quarter, for 39 yards.
But what is just as admirable when watching film of that contest is Hyde's tireless work as a blocker for quarterback Braxton Miller and speedier rushers such as Dontre Wilson.
It is always a risk to throw a rookie—even one as talented as Hyde—into the fray.
However, the 49ers should see Hyde's aptitude as a blocker as a big positive and another reason why they can feel assured in his potential to come in and be an immediate factor.
Hyde's abilities are strikingly similar to those of Gore, and he has backed up his attributes with excellent production throughout his career to date.
It was Hyde's senior year that was his most impressive as he earned third-team All-American and first-team All-Big Ten honors by racking up over 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns despite missing the first three games of the season due to a suspension.
|Carlos Hyde's final three years at Ohio State|
The transition to the pros is always a tough one, but the fact remains that this is a player who averaged a gaudy 7.3 yards per carry in 2013 in one of the toughest divisions in college.
Those are numbers that cannot afford to be ignored, and providing Hyde performs well in training camp, it seems doubtful that a team so devoted to run as the 49ers will do so.
Managing Gore's effectiveness
For all the talk of Gore's eventual decline, the fact is it has yet to arrive.
Gore is coming off a third straight 1,000-yard season—his seventh in eight years—and will hope to continue that run in what will be his 10th year in the league.
But as much as the 49ers and Gore will refuse to admit it, he is unlikely to keep up that level of performance.
And although he still played to a highly admirable level in 2013, there were signs of Gore slowing down in the last campaign.
In the regular season, Gore was held to under three yards per carry on six occasions and, by contrast, was able to put together just three games of 100 yards or more.
|Frank Gore 2013 statistics by quarter|
|1st||Att - 92||Yds - 347||Avg - 3.8||TD - 2|
|2nd||Att - 74||Yds - 311||Avg - 4.2||TD - 4|
|3rd||Att - 92||Yds - 328||Avg - 3.6||TD - 2|
|4th||Att - 66||Yds - 306||Avg - 4.6||TD - 2|
Patience is perhaps one of Gore's best qualities, which is demonstrated by his displays in the fourth quarter, where most of his best work was done last season.
Gore averaged 4.6 yards per carry in the fourth quarter, more than at any other point in regular-season games.
The contributions Gore has made late in games have been pivotal to the 49ers' recent successes.
Yet, if San Francisco wants Gore to continue to make an impact in the closing stages, then it will need to manage him more effectively.
That is where Hyde comes in.
A workhorse for Ohio State, Hyde is well versed in the art of slowly wearing down defenses and, with his hard-nosed downhill style of running, figures to be better at doing so than the likes of Lattimore.
Adding in a young, bruising and talented back like Hyde will give those opponents another dynamic player to deal with, potentially making it easier for San Francisco to grind down teams and keep Gore fresh for those late surges that he has perfected over the years.
In a contract year, Gore will understandably be keen to demonstrate that he can continue to make a big impact at the highest level and is unlikely to be happy ceding carries to anyone, although a competitor of his character should relish the battle between himself and a group of exciting young backs.
Introducing Hyde into the picture could be seen as a negative for the veteran; however, it may prove to be the perfect way to extend Gore's career and maintain his effectiveness as a premier NFL running back.
Gore and Hyde figure to be an excellent one-two punch for San Francisco, providing the Niners with a pair of rushers adept at attacking the heart of a defense.
In the fourth quarter of games, Gore has often been able to stick a dagger in opposing defenses.
Naming Hyde as the primary reserve is the best way to ensure that he is able to demonstrate that ability again in 2014.
How it will play out
Hyde, as long as he can deliver on his outstanding potential, projects as the future of the San Francisco rushing attack.
How long that future takes to arrive depends on the impression Hyde is able to make in preseason and whether the 49ers are willing to plug a rookie into the lineup in an important role.
The good news for Hyde is that they have shown no hesitation in doing so in the past, most recently in the case of free safety Eric Reid.
Reid made it to the Pro Bowl after being handed the starting berth last season, taking the mantle in a key area of the field following the departure of Dashon Goldson.
Gore's presence in the side will probably prevent Hyde from having quite the same success.
However, Hyde's intriguing skill set presents a viable alternative to Gore, and while his lack of experience may favour 2013 backup Hunter, it will be no surprise when the best running back in the 2014 draft emerges as the main reserve and, eventually, the starter for the 49ers.
Note: All statistics courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise stated.
Nicholas McGee is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist based in Leeds, England. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24.
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