San Francisco 49ers

Combine cometh: A look at 49ers’ past, present, future at running back

The 49ers entered 2014 training camp with an abundance of running backs. Right now, Carlos Hyde is the only sure thing for 2015.
The 49ers entered 2014 training camp with an abundance of running backs. Right now, Carlos Hyde is the only sure thing for 2015. The Bee

The annual scouting combine begins next week, which will turn the discussion to the 49ers' offseason needs. Next up: running back, which for the first time in more than a decade could have a decidedly different look in San Francisco.

Past. The 49ers used the 57th pick in the draft on Carlos Hyde, the highest spot they'd taken a running back since 1992 when they took Amp Lee 45th overall. Draft experts agreed that Hyde had the skills -- a big man with a small man's agility -- worthy of a first rounder. In Week 1, Hyde averaged 7.1 yards on seven carries and scored a touchdown. It seemed as if a changing of the guard was afoot in the 49ers' backfield.

But while the season began with Hyde ascendant, it ended with veteran Frank Gore firmly in his familiar spot as 49ers lead running back. At age 31, Gore finished the season with 158- and 144-yard rushing performances, including a rare 52-yard scamper into the end zone in Week 16. Gore finished with more than 1,000 yards for the eighth time in 10 seasons. And his 4.3 yards-per-carry average at season's end was better than Hyde's 4.0 average.

In the summer, the 49ers seemed to have an embarrassment of riches at running back. But Kendall Hunter suffered an ACL tear in training camp, LaMichael James asked for and was granted his release and Marcus Lattimore realized his gruesome college knee injury wouldn't allow him to play in the NFL. Veteran Alfonso Smith and receiver Bruce Ellington had bit roles at running back. But the vast majority of the carries went to Gore, Hyde and quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers finished fourth in rushing yards.

Present: Now that the 49ers coaching search is complete, the big question becomes, 'What happens to two long-time stalwarts of the team?' Defensive end Justin Smith is contemplating retirement. Gore becomes a free agent next month and must decide if he wants to return to the team that gave him his start. Gore wants to remain a starter -- he is seeking another 1,000-yard season -- and he wants a chance to win a Super Bowl. Several 2014 playoff teams, such as Indianapolis, Baltimore and New England, have openings in their backfields.

Gore proved last season that he remains supremely motivated and hasn't shown signs of slowing down. Still, no team, including the 49ers, is likely to pay him, at age 32, the $6.45 million he made in 2014. Gore's market also may be driven down by an uncommonly talented draft class at running back.

If Gore doesn't return, Hyde is the only running back on the roster without question marks. Hunter has made steady progress from his injury. Still, he's suffered two season-ending tears -- an Achilles' and an ACL -- in two of the last three seasons. Smith is a free agent who received little attention last offseason and would be easy to re-sign. Kendall Gaskins finished the 2014 season on the practice squad.

Future: If there was a bumper crop of wide receivers last year, this year it's raining running backs. After a series of dull drafts at the position, there is something for everyone -- speed guys like Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Miami's Duke Johnson, bruisers like and Georgia's Todd Gurley and David Cobb and three-down players like Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Indiana's Tevin Coleman.

"It's Baskin-Robbins, pick-your-flavor this year at running back," CBS draft analyst Rob Rang said. (Rang said he felt that, despite his ACL tear in late November, Gurley still could be drafted in the first round. (For CBS' running back rankings, click here.)

In 2011, general manager Trent Baalke said he favored a by-committee approach at running back that featured three runners who complemented each other but who had similar enough skills that defenses wouldn't be tipped off as far as the play call based on which tailback was in the game.

That plan has had trouble materializing because Gore has been so difficult to take off the field and due to injuries to his backups. If Baalke ever was going to assemble a three-headed beast at the position, this would seem to be the offseason to do so.

Combine workout schedule:

Friday, Feb. 20: Specialists, offensive linemen, tight ends

Saturday, Feb. 21: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers

Sunday: Feb. 22: Defensive linemen, linebackers

Monday, Feb. 23: Defensive backs

Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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