Kevan Barlow remains the front runner to start at running back, but the 49ers, who will be emphasizing the running game to protect their inexperienced quarterbacks, were not about to stand still and just hope he would return to form. Instead, the team drafted Frank Gore. Gore is coming off serious knee injuries in college, but the 49ers believe he is healthy, and if he is, he could make one of the biggest impacts on this team of any rookie.
Kevan Barlow is a tough runner. While splitting time with Garrison Hearst he was able to pound it inside, cut outside and even served as a pretty could receiver out of the backfield. He looked the part of an every down running back – a true starter. Then, last year happened. Barlow was sat in favour of Maurice Hicks an undrafted free agent, as he struggled though his worst season as a pro. This season Barlow will have the opportunity to reclaim his position in the offense, but the 49ers might be less inclined to feature him as the starting back, and may favour the dual back approach that made Barlow so successful in the first place.
The team is baking on Frank Gore being healthy. In college Gore was the complete back, and a player other teams had to account for. Running back is one of the easiest positions to transition to the NFL. Gore now has an excellent opportunity to become a factor on this team. Gore’s biggest obstacle will be learning the blocking schemes to help protect whoever is starting at quarterback. Though he may not start, I do expect Gore to get many repetitions this season.
Terry Jackson always seems to factor into the running back equation. The most versatile back the 49ers have, Jackson is an excellent blocker, and is the man who will occupy the backfield on single back sets. Jackson will no doubt contribute on special teams too, where has excelled in the past years. Although more experienced than any of the running backs it is unlikely that Jackson be considered for the featured back position.
Maurice Hicks managed to squeak onto the team last year as an undrafted free agent. From the practice squad Hicks was eventually promoted while Kevan Barlow struggled. Hicks had one pretty good game, but other than that looked every bit as lost as the rest of the team. He is explosive and quick to the whole, and could factor in to games this season. The drafting of Gore though does stifle Hicks ability to become a serious player in the team’s offense.
Fred Beasley has a lock on the fullback position. Regarded as a top, if not the top, fullback in the NFL, Beasley is one of the few established stars on the team. The 49ers moved away from giving Beasley the ball in short yardage situations last season mainly because it became all too predictable. Still Beasley is a force to be reckoned with while blocking and while handling the ball. In recent years he has gotten a little sloppy catching the ball, but I attribute that to him only seeing one ball thrown his way every once in a blue moon.
Backing up Beasley is Steve Bush. Bush will see the field only if Beasley is really struggling or hurt. After all, Beasley has earned that right. The team could also rely on Terry Jackson to assist in blocking duties.
The real meat of the running back battle will be between Frank Gore and Kevan Barlow. This competition is sure to be heated and intense. Who will prevail? I have a feeling it will be Barlow, but I also think Gore will go down swinging and become a factor in the offense somehow, this year.