Sports Out West

49ers OTAs: Who will carry the ball behind Frank Gore?

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One of the questions on everyone’s mind as the San Francisco 49ers begin their OTAs is how the future of the running back position will shake out. Frank Gore remains the unquestioned starter, but there are multiple options ready to compete for remaining playing time. 

As the 49ers evaluate the roles of Carlos Hyde, Marcus Lattimore, Kendall Hunter and (possibly) LaMichael James, they have to not only consider what is best for the team this season, but also what the pecking order might look like in years to come.

Under the Jim Harbaugh regime, the Niners have relied on the power running game to be the staple of their offense. During this three-season time frame, the 49ers handed the ball off to a running back or full back 1,216 times. Gore, the team’s primary runner, received 816 of those carries (67 percent).

Other than Gore, San Francisco’s second running back received 289 of the attempts (24 percent). Hunter got the bulk of them at 262, although the 27 carries James had in 2012 are also factored into this total because he took over for Hunter as the primary backup following an injury. 

Taking those numbers into consideration, that means that any fullback or players below Gore and his primary backup have only received 111 carries over three seasons, or nine percent of the total.

Looking at this trend, it’s hard to imagine how the 49ers are going to incorporate four running backs into the mix when their offensive game plans almost never rely on more than two backs at a time.

Obviously, the age of Gore will factor into the equation here, as he will be playing this upcoming season at 31-years-old. The team will look to minimize his touches to keep their work horse fresh.

Gore has averaged 17 carries a game from 2011-2013. While this number is likely to decrease, it’s hard to imagine how it can drop by much more than a few. The primary backup has averaged six carries a game during the same time period, while everyone else saw about 2 attempts per contest.

If the 49ers keep running about 25 times a game on average, there should be about 10-12 touches available for Hyde, Lattimore and Hunter. Given this scenario, it’s unlikely that all three will be able to see the field on a consistent basis.

Hyde appears to be the player who could be the heir apparent to Gore. The 49ers used a second round selection on the rookie, and his powerful running style looks to be a perfect fit. There will be an emphasis on grooming Hyde for the future, as well as using him in short yardage situations.

Lattimore is the wild card because no one knows if he can return to form after two serious knee injuries. He, like Hyde, has never set foot on an NFL field and may not be the same back he was in college due to the damage done to his knees. If he does bounce back, however, he could find himself in a timeshare with Hyde come 2015.

Considering what Hyde and Lattimore could offer in the future, it might make sense to make sure they are involved in the present so the transition is a smooth one come next year.

While James is a long shot to make any kind of an impact, Hunter has played well over his first three seasons with the team, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. If Lattimore needs more time or is not 100 percent, Hunter could still see significant action. If Lattimore is ready to go, Hunter could be on the outside looking in.

That’s hard to believe considering Hunter’s past performance, but the best players will play. Also factoring in will be Hunter’s contract, which expires after this year. With so much depth at running back, an extension doesn’t appear to be in the cards.

While OTAs will provide a glimpse of the competition, it’s safe to say this battle won’t fully take shape until training camp. Regardless, it’s without a doubt one of the more intriguing story lines for the 49ers heading into the 2014 season.    

Photo:Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

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Al Sacco

Al Sacco is sports expert who knows football, baseball, basketball and hockey. He has spent his time as a sports journalist covering the San Francisco 49ers as a staff writer for 49erswebzone.com and 49ersgab.com. He is also a contributor to Yahoo! Voices and has had his work used on ESPN NFL Insiders.

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