Race for the NFC West Title: 49ers Running Backs Ready to Rumble

Ken StansellContributor IIMay 19, 2009

ORCHARD PARK, NY - NOVEMBER 30: Shaun Hill #13 of the San Francisco 49ers hands off to Frank Gore #21 against the Buffalo Bills   on November 30, 2008 at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York.  The 49ers won10-3.  (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

Can you say platoon?

That is the strategy you may see employed at the position of running back by the 49ers next season.

While Frank Gore remains a fan favorite and has legitimate Pro Bowl potential, you may need a program to know who is at the tailback position this fall. 

When camp opens this summer, the 49ers stable of talented and high potential running backs will be full.

The days of one premium back carrying the load all season for a team seem to be numbered if not already over altogether.  It is the rare running back who can play that role these days given the shear athletic talent on the defensive side of the ball. 

Mike Singletary and his new offensive coordinator, Jimmy Raye, both know if the 49ers are to run the ball and run it convincingly, they will need more than one weapon in their arsenal.

A healthy Frank Gore will be complimented by one, if not two, sets of fresh legs this season.

Possibly one of the most intriguing off season pickups was the signing of Kory Sheets.  An undrafted free agent out of Purdue, Sheets fell from favor in the NFL's 2009 draft by criticizing his coaches and teammates alike at Purdue during his senior season.

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Whatever Sheets may have been guilty of in the "mouthing off" department, he was certainly not guilty of under-performing when it came to game time.  In his four year college career with the Boilermakers, Sheets amassed over 3300 rushing yards in 664 attempts and scored 48 rushing touchdowns. 

In his senior season at Purdue, Sheets ran for 1131 yards and 16 touchdowns in 234 attempts.  Considering this came against quality Big-10 opponents, Sheets would appear to be an outright steal as a free agent.

With their third round pick, the 49ers took Alabama junior sensation Glen Coffee, who ran for 1,383 yards and 10 touchdowns in 233 attempts last season.  Coffee himself says he likes to run over and through people when he carries the ball. 

Lest we forget, the 49ers still have Thomas Clayton, a project out of Kansas State who has led the league two years in a row in preseason rushing statistics.  Clayton has been relegated the practice squad for two years in a row but finally got elevated to the 49ers roster late last season due to injuries to other backs.

With all these running backs on their roster, one glaring question staring the 49ers coaches in the face is what to do with special teams stud Michael Robinson?  Robinson has been an occasional third down back, but in his three year career with the 49ers, Robinson has only 83 carries for 287 yards—a 3.5 yard per carry average. 

Robinson's real value, other than special teams and leadership, seems to be his receiving out of the backfield where he has 37 receptions for 322 yards—an 8.5 yards per reception average.

Obviously special teams needs will play a factor in which of these four backs—Sheets, Coffee, Clayton, and Robinson make the team. 

The 49ers may find themselves in the difficult position of having to let one of these talented running backs go—particularly if they elect to carry all four quarterbacks on their roster this season (Huard, Davis, Smith and Hill).  

Given that Thomas Clayton has been cut two years running, only to be re-signed to the practice squad, I suspect he may be the odd man out again this season.  

Don't be surprised if Frank Gore's reps in camp and preseason are very limited this year, while the other backs Coffee, Sheets, and Clayton battle it out for the back-up running back slots on the team.


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