Running back is making a comeback.
No tailbacks were taken in the opening round in the past two NFL drafts, and only seven were first rounders in the past five drafts. By contrast, 17 wide receivers were selected in the first round over the same span, a dichotomy that underscored the way college and NFL offenses have pivoted from traditional running attacks toward wide-open passing games.
That trend continues, and the April 30-May 2 draft again will be rich in wideouts. But, perhaps unique in this era, the draft also is expected to yield a bumper crop of running backs. There are fast ones like Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Miami’s Duke Johnson, bruisers like Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Minnesota’s David Cobb, and three-down players like Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Indiana’s Tevin Coleman.
“If you can’t find a running back from this group, you’ll never be able to find one,” CBS Sports draft analyst Rob Rang said. “It’s Baskin-Robbins – pick-your-flavor this year at running back.”
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One of the teams expected to take advantage is the 49ers, whose once impressive depth at the position evaporated over the last year.
Anthony Dixon departed in free agency, LaMichael James asked to be released, and Marcus Lattimore realized his 2012 knee injury wouldn’t allow him to play in the NFL and retired.
The team heads to the scouting combine in Indianapolis this week with just two players who have had NFL carries – Carlos Hyde and Kendall Hunter, who is returning from an ACL injury – under contract for next season.
That list, of course, doesn’t include the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, Frank Gore, who is set to become a free agent for the first time on March 10.
On Sunday, Gore posted a message on his Instagram account indicating he was growing impatient about the lack of progress on a new deal with the 49ers.
“I know the fans love me but I need to know if the management does,” he wrote, “but I’m going to love my fans no matter what.”
The 49ers have said they want to re-sign him, and Gore said in December he’d like to return. But he doesn’t want a diminished role.
“I want to play football,” Gore said when asked in December if he needs to be the lead tailback on the team. “I’m signing up to play football. So I want to play football. And I feel like I still can play.”
Gore has his sights set on reaching the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he believes two things will help him reach that goal.
First, he needs another 1,000-yard rushing season, which would push him over 12,000 career yards – a threshold for many recent Hall of Famers. He also wants to win a Super Bowl.
What kind of market will Gore have if he reaches free agency?
He turns 32 in May and is unlikely to receive the $6.5 million he earned the past two seasons from the 49ers or any other team. But he also showed last year he remains motivated and effective, and he could get attention from some of the 2014 playoff squads – Indianapolis, Baltimore, even New England – that lack a featured runner.
This isn’t the first time Gore and the 49ers have been at a contract impasse. He held out for four days of training camp in 2011 because he was entering the final year of his deal and wanted an extension. A deal eventually was hammered out, but it’s the one that expires next month.
The league typically does most of its business at the combine, which attracts both team officials and player agents. The 49ers’ top negotiator, team president Paraag Marathe, will be there, as will Gore’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.