The San Francisco 49ers have one of the most complete rosters in the NFL. Included in their embarrassment of riches is a stable of capable and explosive running backs that give Jim Harbaugh and his staff the ability do a lot of different things in the running game. Greg Roman is very creative in designing plays for his backs and with the best offensive line in the game, there isn't much they can't do on the ground. The addition on Colin Kaepernick to the starting lineup only added another dimension to this already versatile group. The only issue going into 2013 is whether or not there will be enough footballs to go around. The 49ers pretty much use two running backs in their game plans. Frank Gore is obviously the lead back. Kendall Hunter was outstanding spelling him until he was injured late last year. LaMichael James showed he could be a play maker when he stepped in at the end of last season. So how will this situation play out in 2013? Here is a look at the roster below.
The Stable: Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Anthony Dixon
The Wildcards: Colin Kaepernick, player to be named later
Frank Gore: Gore has been the face of the 49er's offense since 2005. The franchise's all time leading rusher, Gore has been remarkably consistent his whole career. He has also been remarkably durable during the Harbaugh era, playing all 32 games (37 counting the playoffs). But Gore only has so much left in he tank. He will enter the 2013 season at 30 years old. 30 is usually when you start to see running backs take a step back although Gore has shown no signs of that. His stats over two seasons in Greg Roman's offense have been almost identical. 1,211 yards rushing with 8 touchdowns in 2011. 1,214 yards rushing with 8 touchdowns in 2012. Gore did carry the ball less in 2012 than he did in 2011 (282 in '11 to 258 in '12) and did respond with higher yards per carry (4.7 in '12 opposed to 4.3 in '11). Limiting Gore's workload paid off as he average 106 yards on the ground in the playoffs and scored 4 rushing touchdowns. But the 49ers have to start preparing for life without Gore soon. They should still be able to get one more good season out of him but expect his carries to dip yet again.
Kendall Hunter: Hunter has the ability to be a feature back in the NFL. His playing time is limited (he averaged 7 carries a game in '11 and 6.5 in '12) but he has showed the ability to a consistent back that can gain big chunks of yardage. His yards per carry average jumped from 4.2 in 2011 to 5.2 in 2012 before an injury against the Saints ended his season. If healthy, Hunter could be the lead back as early as 2014. The 49ers will always diversify in their running game with multiple backs but expect Hunter to continue to grow in this offense. Even though Gore's carries will continue to decrease, Hunter will probably still only carry the ball 6 or 7 times a game. This is because of the emergence of...
LaMichael James: James could not even see the field until Hunter went down. This was not for lack of talent as he showed once he got his opportunity. He skill set fits very well with a Colin Kapernick led offense and he could thrive in the pistol over a full season. But he will only be a role player in this offense. In 2012, he carried the ball 27 times over 4 games for 125 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and continued to contribute in the playoffs with 11 carries for 65 yards and a touchdown. Expect more of the same in 2013 where he touches the ball 4 or 5 times out of the backfield. That's not to say the 49ers can't get creative when using him and find multiple packages to utilize his skills. He will also see action on special teams returning kicks.
Anthony Dixon: Dixon (if still on the team) would be primarily a special teams player. He only gets an occasional carry and won't be able to crack the lineup with Gore, Hunter, and James ahead of him.
Colin Kaepernick: Kaepernick is a passer. The 49ers want him to be their franchise quarterback for the next decade and will not put his health in jeopardy by designing run after run for him. That's not to say he won't get his carries but I see most of his yards coming off of broken plays. However, one would think the team will use his running ability here and there when it could change the game or keep the defense on its heals. He will be a big factor in the red zone and the team will benefit because he will always be a threat to take off. Still, even if limited, Kaep could eat into carries for Gore, Hunter and James, especially in the before mentioned red zone.
Player to be named later: With Gore nearing the end of the line and Hunter coming off an injury, I think the 49ers might take a flyer on a running back in the draft and "red shirt" him for a year. Marcus Lattimore out of South Carolina is a real possibility in the mid rounds. The 49ers could stash him away for a year while he recovers from his knee injury with hopes of him playing a major role in 2014.