San Francisco 49ers

Battle stations! Young RBs will fight for pecking order behind bell cow

The competition between Marcus Lattimore and Carlos Hyde, both of whom were big-time running backs in big-time conferences, has captured the imagination of fans and fantasy football pundits alike. I know I've done at least two national radio interviews in the last week where that has been a hot topic.

As juicy as that battle might seem, however, the reality of the situation is that neither young runner is likely to see significant carries this year as long as Frank Gore is healthy. Or walking. Or upright.

Gore, you see, is going into the final year of his contract, which also happens to be his 10th season with the 49ers. A decade with one team is a huge milestone, especially for a running back. One of the walls inside 49ers headquarters is dedicated to the men who have played 10 or more years with them. It's a relatively small group and there's only one running back, Joe Perry, whose portrait is on that wall.

Perry is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the 49ers have retired his number. If Gore plays this season, he will be the 49th player on the wall -- a fitting number for a player who propped up the offense during its darkest years.

Gore, who is as tough and as proud a player as I have ever covered, has been loathe to come off the field in his first nine seasons. It's hard to see him quietly acquiescing to a smaller role in his 10th, which very well could be his swan song in San Francisco. Beyond that, everyone seems to forget that Kendall Hunter has been Gore's understudy the last three seasons and promises to get the bulk of the carries that don't go to the team's bell cow back.

That's not to say that Lattimore and Hyde won't be fun to watch. Gore, 31, won't get a lot (any?) carries in the preseason, and Hunter likely will head to the sideline after a series or two. That will give the two new guys plenty of opportunities to show their skills.

What's more, Hunter also is in the final year of his initial contract. Lattimore v. Hyde could be a great competition. But the impact of it may come next year.