Last April, the 49ers selected Anthony Dixon, running back from Mississippi State in the sixth round. However, the 49ers running back situation was a bit erratic this past season.
After the sudden retirement of second-year running back Glen Coffee before the season kicked off, the 49ers hand was forced to bring in the concussion plagued veteran Brian Westbrook. There wasn't exactly a plethora of veteran talent out there. Running backs who could learn an NFL playbook on the fly were scarce.
Despite his solid performances in filling in for Frank Gore, who fractured his hip in a victory over Arizona on Monday Night Football toward the end of the year, recent reports out of San Francisco have alluded to the strong possibility that Brian Westbrook would not be returning to the roster in 2011. Should that be the case, it would leave a vacancy on the roster.
Frank Gore has only played one full season in his career up to this point (2006). Anthony Dixon did so-so for a rookie, but it seems on the surface that he may be nothing more than a goal line, short-yardage back. It's hard to picture him carrying the full load eventually.
This brings up a topic that has been relatively popular among 49ers fans; who will fill that void? And will that person be a change-of-pace type of running back?
Or will the Niners front office seek value in drafting a prototypical back to groom and then replace Gore in a couple of years?
Whatever the thoughts may be, most teams in the National Football League have turned to a running back by committee approach. The 49ers already have their prototypical, every-down back in Gore, and already have their power back in Anthony Dixon.
With that in mind, here is a look at the top five change-of-pace running backs in this year's draft.
Derrick Locke may not ever be able to carry the full load for any NFL team. He does not possess the size or durability to hold up for 300 carries in a season. The Kentucky running back projects to be a nice supplement to a team who already has a feature running back (eh-hem... the 49ers).
Locke has exceptional speed. He won't surprise many folks tomorrow when he has one of the quickest 40-times out of the running back category, and possibly in the entire combine.
Straight line running would be the best way to explain Locke's running style. He can be shifty, but he seems to take the get as much yardage as he can approach and tends to go down easily on first contact. His field vision seems to be on par for what an NFL running backs should be.
He's a great receiver out of the backfield and picks up oncoming pass rushers well for his size; long enough for his quarterback to get the ball off in most scenarios.
Projection: Fifth/Sixth Round
Devine is as divine as his last name. There is no question that he will be a decent player in the NFL. However, Devine will only be a situational player much like current NFL player Darren Sproles of the San Diego Chargers.
Explosive would be one way to explain Devine's playing style, and elusive would be the complementary adjective. He can take it to the house on any given play and he knows how to get the crowd up off their John Brown hind parts and out of their seats.
Devine does not have top end speed, but his ability to make defenders miss is uncanny.
He will without a question be a liability in pass protection. He's top heavy, and for a little guy that's not necessarily the best thing. There are some question marks next to Devine's name in both his total package skill-set and his character. But he has the combine, as well as the preseason, to help erase some of the doubts.
He'll have to work extremely hard to make a name for himself at the next level, but has the talent to make it happen.
Projection: Fourth/Fifth Round
Dion Lewis was at the top of the crop last year. He was just one-yard short of rushing for 1,800 yards in 2009 with 17 touchdowns. However, this year his production fell off. It didn't help his campaign that he had to split carries with his counterpart Ray Graham, who rushed for 922 yards.
Lewis has an excellent chance to make a major impact in the NFL. His field vision may be the best out of any running back coming out this year. He is a pure runner and has the ability to cut as quickly as the DC Comic book superhero "The Flash."
He could be a liability in pass blocking, but he does have decent hands out of the backfield.
Lewis' best chance in the league is going to be to complement a backfield that is already established. It may not be the best bet for him to be a feature back initially. But if you're speaking in terms of on down the road, he very well could be. He has the capacity.
The Pittsburgh running back can elevate his stock quite a bit in tomorrows events. These last two years at Pittsburgh were very impressive. Particularly his 2009 season.
Projection: Third/Fourth Round
Rodgers is the shortest running back in this years draft and will be the shortest running back drafted in quite some time. But don't let his height fool you. He is short, but compact, almost weighing 200 pounds.
Rodgers is not the easiest back to bring down. In fact, he is extremely difficult to bring down. On top of being built like a bowling ball, he is as bouncy and elusive as a jackrabbit. His hands were some of the best in college football, not only for a running back, but period.
In just three years, Rodgers managed to rack up 3,877 yards on 788 attempts with 46 touchdowns. And that was just on the ground. Receiving-wise, the Oregon State product had 151 receptions for 1,056 yards with five touchdowns.
It's quite possible that after everything is all said and done, that the Texas native could be the best change-of-pace running back in this class.
Projection: Second/Third Round.
Oklahoma State has a history of producing great running backs (See: Sanders, Barry and Thomas, Thurman). In any case, Hunter has a chance to carve out his own legacy.
If you turn the film on, you'll see why Hunter is rated as one of the better backs coming out this year. Most folks have him chalked up as being only a third-down type of guy, but there are reasons to contradict that belief.
Hunter has produced at a very high level for a majority of his career. 2008 and 2010 were perhaps his best years. In 2009, Hunter missed five games with an injury. After the second game of the year against Houston, in which he was injured, Hunter never returned to his regular form that year. 2010, Hunter was fully rehabilitated and put to rest any and all concerns.
One of the biggest knocks on Hunter is that he is more of a make-'em-miss type of back. He's not going to break a ton of tackles, and he'll have less room to do what he did in college at the next level. But the other things that he is good at should translate very well.
With a solid performance at the combine, Hunter could leap frog a bunch of the other backs.
Projection: Second/Third Round.
All of the mentioned running backs all have special qualities. They all have the skill-sets to play at the next level. But the NFL Draft year in and year out is a crap shoot. Some of these guys will not excel due to unfortunate circumstance, and others just won't be able to make the mental hurdle to succeed as a professional football player.
Last year there were several 49ers fans on the C.J. Spiller bandwagon. Many people thought the change-of-pace back to be a priority. This year, the theme has changed a bit and it doesn't seem to be as big of a concern.
But Frank Gore is not getting any younger. He has been riddled with injuries here and there throughout his career. The need for a consistency at the position has become more and more apparent.
Whether you think the 49ers should draft one of these guys, or someone else even, one thing is certain, the void is there. There's always the chance that a new Collective Bargaining Agreement gets done soon. If that's the case, then there will be a market for running backs in free agency.
But with 10, possibly 11 picks, grabbing a running back seems very probable.