USA TODAY Sports
Frank Gore is still going strong as he prepares for his 10th NFL season.
A number of roles at the running back position have not yet been clearly defined. However, the one thing that we do know is that Frank Gore is back for another season as the starter.
At the age of 31, Gore is entering his 10th NFL season. He is a borderline Hall of Fame player and another one or two productive seasons—especially were the Niners to win a Super Bowl—could cement his induction.
Today, however, Gore will once again lead the 49ers rushing attack. He is the heart and soul of the 49ers offense. Although his workload may decrease slightly, expect Gore to still be in on the majority of the 49ers offensive snaps.
In the 2013 season, Gore had 276 rushing attempts and gained 1,128 yards, with nine touchdowns. It was Gore's seventh 1,000-yard season. The only concern was that Gore's yards-per-carry average of 4.1 was the lowest of his tremendous career.
Gore is also a terrific pass-blocker, adept at picking up blitzing defenders. Carlos Hyde's ability to improve upon this skill will be important, as he will be the primary backup to Gore. Hyde, the rookie out of Ohio State, has shown well in the preseason. He has nine carries for 50 yards and has shown good vision, power and a quick burst.
The ACL injury to Kendall Hunter virtually assures LaMichael James of a spot on the roster. A 2012 second-round draft pick, James has not been the kind of elusive change-of-pace back the 49ers envisioned.
With Hunter out for the season, James gets another chance in 2014. The elusiveness and breakaway speed we saw in James' college days at Oregon have not translated into success at the NFL level.
It will be up to offensive coordinator Greg Roman to find ways to get the ball to James in space, where he can use his speed and quickness to elude defenders. James must also improve his ability to hold onto the ball as he has shown a tendency to fumble.
He is also not a good blocker, which limits his playing time. His poor blocking means that opposing defensive coordinators have a better idea of the type of plays to expect from the San Francisco offense when he is in the game.
James will compete with Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton for punt- and kickoff-return duties.
Bruce Miller is the 49ers' starting fullback and a good one. He was injured late in the season and missed the playoffs. His absence as a blocking back hurt the 49ers offense. Miller will need to stay healthy in order to give Gore and company more running lanes.
The remainder of the backfield is a question mark. Look for the 49ers to carry at least one more running back and another versatile player who can play fullback.
If Marcus Lattimore is healthy he claims the other running back spot. However, he sat out all of the 2013 season after suffering a devastating knee injury in his final year at South Carolina.
Lattimore has not been able to play, as he is still dealing with leg issues. He is currently on the Active/Non-Football Injury list. His successful return would give the 49ers a boost, but at this time, such a move is very unlikely.
Jewel Hampton and Alfonso Smith are in the running for the final running back spot if Lattimore cannot make it back. This figures to be a very close competition and the nod goes to Hampton as he has a slightly better grasp of the system, this being his second camp with the 49ers.
Look for the 49ers to retain Will Tukuafu as the backup fullback. He can also play as a third tight end or blocking H-back in the 49ers' jumbo package. Tukuafu also has experience on the defensive line, which can be valuable if the 49ers suffer injuries at that spot.