When last we visited our off-season analysis of the current roster for the San Francisco 49ers, we took a look at the quarterback position. Today we move to the folks who line up just off and behind the quarterback: the running back.
Including Moran Norris at fullback, there are just four players at the position on the roster.
Frank Gore, rookie Glen Coffee and special teams specialist Michael Robinson fill out the rest if the backs, with Gore/Coffee receiving the bulk of the work.
Many believed that the arrival of Offensive Coordinator Jimmy Raye meant that ground and pound would be the order of the day. However, the 49ers offense passed far more than it ran—of the 899 offensive plays the team ran, 528 were pass plays.
It’s likely that this remains the same for 2010, assuming Alex Smith continues to play well enough to keep it effective.
It also begs the question as to whether the Niners will feel they need another running back.
This has been Frank Gore’s team for four years now. While several backs have come and gone (Thomas Clayton, DeShaun Foster, Kevan Barlow) this team’s ground game is all Gore, all the time.
Despite being the lead back for a team which ran far less than it threw, Gore posted his fourth straight 1,000 plus yard season. In fact, he posted better yardage totals and scored more touchdowns on less carries than either of the previous two seasons.
All this is pretty impressive, especially when you factor in his two missed games. Three really, since he only carried the ball once against the Minnesota Vikings before he left due to injury.
Of course, this brings up a constant question which has plagued Gore off and on for his career—is he injury prone?
My thought is, no he isn’t. Does he get banged up? Yes—and so do many other backs, especially when they carry the majority load for their team.
Of course, it would help Gore if they could portion out a greater share of the carries to someone else. This year, he took about two-thirds of the the carries for the 49ers.
On the other hand, that percentage is from a lesser overall total which helps to keep his general wear and tear from being to severe.
Gore also achieved the second highest yards-per-carry rating of his career, hitting 4.9 ypc—a big improvement on the 4.3/4.2 from the previous two seasons. Sure, that was helped by several huge touchdown runs.
Keep in mind though, even those big runs were behind an inconsistent and underwhelming offensive line—one of the likely focal points for the 49ers improvements for the 2010 off-season.
Frank Gore will continue to be the lead back in this offense. While it will probably not shift much more focus onto the ground game, Offensive Coordinator Jimmy Raye and Head Coach Mike Singletary will need the run game to keep defenses honest and help likely starting quarterback Alex Smith.
If Gore can stay relatively healthy and if the team can improve it’s offensive line, he should continue to be a very productive portion of the 49ers offense. One which they can—and will—rely on.
Glen CoffeeAs I stated earlier, when the season began the thought was that the 49ers would feature the run game prominently. As that was the case, a fair amount of people assumed that rookie Glen Coffee would see a significant number of carries.
This didn’t happen and if it wasn’t for the injury to Gore, he’d have carried the ball even fewer times.
Even with the minor amount of carries Coffee got, he ended up missing just over a game due to concussion and part of the Week 15 game against the Philadelphia Eagles due to a hamstring injury.
It’s difficult to determine how effective Coffee can be based on the very insignificant amount of opportunity the rookie received.
He did show good burst, some nice open field moves and the ability to effectively block during pass plays. However, during his time as starter he failed to establish the run game, had problems breaking free of tackles and getting yards after first contact.
For the most part, Coffee looked like what he was—a rookie with a long way to go to become a consistent weapon in the offense. Still, he was effective enough as a back-up and will continue to function largely in that capacity as he improves his overall game.
Robinson has remained the number three back off and on for several seasons, never doing much when he gets the opportunity to show his ability. His chief duty is as a kick returner and honestly, he’s not terribly effective in that capacity either.
I believe Robinson’s time could be running short on the team. They desperately need a good returner and unfortunately Robinson has not been it.
Norris has tooled around the league for seven years now, almost exclusively as a blocking fullback. More and more teams are moving away from utilizing the fullback in this way—often teams are moving a second tight end into formations instead.
Norris is very good at what he does though. While he isn’t a back who will ever get many carries, I feel as though a portion of the credit for Gore’s season lies with Norris. Behind an offensive line a injury-plagued and underperforming as this was, a solid run-blocking fullback like Norris is a huge asset.
It’s entirely possible the 49ers will draft a solid blocking tight end, in which case Norris’ role may become more marginalized. Until then though, Norris will remain a quietly effective part of this offense.
Given that both Frank Gore and Glen Coffee were hurt at various points throughout the 2009 season, one might think that the team would be worried about adding another back for 2010.
It’s clear to me though that the 49ers feel no great need to add another player merely for running back duties. Gore is still very productive, Coffee will have another camp under his belt and in an emergency Robinson can serve.
They were able to patch the lineup to cover for the injuries pretty effectively, even if the transitions weren’t seamless.
This is not to say they won’t add a back for depth later. It’s just not a priority.
What is a priority, though, is a kick and punt returner. As I mentioned above, Micheal Robinson is not getting the job done.
According to a report on Special Teams Units by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News (via Matt Maiocco’s Twitter feed), the 49ers rank 21st in the NFL in effectiveness.
That ranking—as middle of the road as it is—is largely because of the punt and kick coverage units though, not because of the return units.
The team ranked 23rd in kickoff returns, averaging just 28.1 yards per return. They were atrocious in punt returns—ranked dead last in the league with a woeful 4.4 yards per return.
If the team does indeed draft a running back early, it will be one with a very good set of return skills. This makes players like Clemson’s CJ Spiller, Cal’s Jahvid Best and Ole Miss’ Dexter McCluster possibilities with the team’s picks either late in the first round or second round.
It’s possible however that the team may grab a wide receiver or cornerback to fulfill the same need. They may also make a trade or sign a free agent to meet this need.
If that happens, then I don’t foresee the 49ers coming away with a running back from either the first or second round in the 2010 draft, nor via free agency.
Fans may feel a little shaky with just two real running backs on the roster (and perhaps a returning Thomas Clayton, though he never amounted to much either), but it’s clear to me the team feels it can make it with what is on staff and wait to grab an upside back later in the Draft this April.