San Francisco 49ers

49ers look ahead: Team has RB depth but does it have a bell cow?

Video: San Francisco 49ers Training Camp Preview

Matt Barrows talks about the three things he'll have his eye on when 49ers training camp begins later this week. Video by Manny Crisostomo.
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Matt Barrows talks about the three things he'll have his eye on when 49ers training camp begins later this week. Video by Manny Crisostomo.

Over the last few days, I’ve been ranking the 49ers position groups from strongest to weakest. Next up ...

Running back

Recap: When Frank Gore was a rookie in 2005, it was obvious he was better than the incumbent tailback, Kevan Barlow. Though Barlow had more carries than Gore -- 176 to 127 -- Gore had more yards and, with that, a dramatically better per-carry average, 4.8 yards vs. Barlow's 3.3 yards. The dynamic last year between rookie Carlos Hyde and Gore, a 10-year player, was not nearly as clear cut. Hyde had an excellent opener against Dallas, rushing seven times for 50 yards and a 15-yard touchdown. But Gore showed a rare finishing kick for a 31 year old, rushing for at least 144 yards in the final two contests. He ended the season averaging 4.3 yards a carry. Hyde averaged 4 yards per run. All of which is long way of saying this: Ideally, an NFL team wants its young runner to take the job from the incumbent. That didn't happen in the 49ers' situation. Hyde certainly flashed talent. But he didn't show that he was better than Gore. The 49ers all-time leading rusher left via free agency because the 49ers weren't willing to pay as much as other teams and because Gore felt he had a better shot at a Super Bowl in Indianapolis. ... Tailback was a two-man show in San Francisco last year. Kendall Hunter tore his ACL early in training camp and unhappy LaMichael James was waived in early September. Alfonso Smith was added to the roster but mostly played special teams. The most effective runner was quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had a career high 639 yards and averaged 6.1 yards a carry. Receiver Bruce Ellington had six carries for 28 yards on end arounds and fly sweeps and scored a touchdown. He's likely to reprise that role this season.

Outlook. Running back is as deep as some of the groups ranked ahead of it. But unlike, say, defensive line, only one tailback gets in the game on a given snap. Hyde will get the first shot. He's dropped five or so pounds from last season in the hope of adding some quickness. He said he also learned how to be a more patient runner from watching Gore last season. Both of which ought to serve him well in his first season as an NFL workhorse back and will help him adjust to a rushing attack that employs more zone-blocking schemes than last season. How the remaining snaps will be divided is tougher to answer and will evolve as the season goes on. Reggie Bush was brought in to assist an offense that suddenly will be using half-back screens and swing passes after a four-year absence. Bush has taken over the veteran-leader role from Gore and leads the 49ers' otherwise young group of halfbacks during position drills. Bush also has quickly developed chemistry with Kaepernick, who hasn't exactly been known for soft, short-range passes. That dynamic will be something to watch this summer. Hunter, meanwhile, looks entirely recovered from last year's injury. No 49ers runner hits the hole quite like Hunter. He always has been an excellent change-of-pace back with the strength to be an every-down runner should Hyde get injured. Fourth-round pick Mike Davis also could be a workhorse should Hyde be sidelined. He's far better than most rookie runners at pass protection -- essential for getting on the field -- and has a direct, no frills running style. Jarryd Hayne is quick and fast for someone who weighs 220 pounds. But unless there are a rash of injuries, he likely would, at best, be limited to special teams. Kendall Gaskins is the remaining tailback on the roster. Bruce Miller and good-looking second-year player Trey Millard, returning from a 2013 ACL tear, are the fullbacks.

Question marks. Most teams would love to have this problem, but finding roles for each of the runners will be difficult if everyone is healthy. Like Gore before him, Hyde is best when he has abundant carries and gets into a rhythm. But doing that doesn't leave a lot of opportunities for Bush, Hunter and Davis. How many tailbacks can dress on game days? Bush is the leading candidate to return punts and Hunter has played on kick coverage units in the past. (He recovered a fumble for a TD in 2013). If GM Trent Baalke wants a three-headed monster at the position, those are the likely three heads. ... Would Hayne accept a role on the practice squad? It's one thing for Lawrence Okoye to be on the practice squad. He's young and likely makes more money there than he would in another venture. Hayne, however, is 27 and could command a far greater salary playing Rugby League in Australia. ... Gore was perhaps the best running back in the league when it came to pass protection and blitz pickup. How will Hyde and Bush fare behind an offensive line that will have at least two new starters this season?

Person of interest. Bush will get the most publicity because he's, well, Reggie Bush, but Hyde is the most important player at this position. All offseason, the 49ers have preached that they will be a run-first offense. In recent years, the 49ers knew exactly what they had in their featured runner -- someone who no longer could routinely break off 20-yard runs, but also someone who was steady, who didn't fumble, who didn't make mistakes and who could be counted on for a 1,000-yard season. Hyde, by contrast, is explosive. But he's also never been an every-down NFL runner. And because of that, there are plenty of unknowns.

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49ers position ranking:

1. outside linebacker

2. safety

3. defensive line

4. running back

5. coming Tuesday

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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