As the San Francisco 49ers get set to begin training camp at the end of month, they will find themselves in a predicament they're not accustomed to.
From 2006-2013, Frank Gore has gone into the season as the unquestioned work horse and lynch pin of the offense. Now, as the team prepares to limit the 31-year old and also look to the future, Jim Harbaugh and company will have the challenge of figuring out how they can distribute the ball in a crowded backfield.
In addition to Gore, the 49ers must evaluate the roles of Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore (LaMichael James appears to be a long shot to make any kind of an impact sans special teams at this point). In doing so, the coaching staff must not only consider what is best for the team this season, but also how they expect the depth chart to shake out moving forward.
The challenge is, despite being primarily a running team, the 49ers generally do not use more than two backs at a time in their game plan. This approach has left a very small percentage of touches for the any back past number two in the pecking order.
In the three seasons since Harbaugh took the reigns, the 49ers have 1,216 (non-quarterback) regular season rushing attempts. Gore, the team's unquestioned starter, received 816 of those attempts (67 percent).
With Gore getting the majority of the work, San Francisco's second back got 289 carries (24 percent) during that same time period. Hunter got the majority of those with 262, although the 27 attempts James got in 2012 are also factored into this total because he took over as the primary backup after Hunter was injured.
Beyond Gore and his primary backup, any other fullback or running back received only 111 carries (nine percent).
When you take these totals into consideration, it's hard to imagine how the 49ers will be able to get a good look at the backs in their stable without changing the overall approach. At first glance, considering Gore's age and recent workload, the answer to this problem would simply be to limit his carries and spread them around amongst the other backs. But when you take a look at the trends, that may be easier said than done.
The 49ers have run the ball about 25 times a game from 2011-2013. Gore has averaged 17 of those carries, while the primary backup gets about six touches a contest. That leaves just two carries for everyone else. Even if you decrease Gore' workload by 3-4 attempts, that still only leaves about 12 carries to split between possibly three other backs.
It's hard to imagine Hunter, Hyde and Lattimore all seeing consistent playing time under this scenario.
Hunter has proven he can handle the role and has excelled in doing so. He's carried the ball 262 times since 2011 and averaged 4.6 yards per carry with seven rushing touchdowns. The issue with Hunter is that he's in the last year of his contract and it seems unlikely the 49ers would resign him given the depth at the position.
The main reason Hunter's future is in doubt is the addition of Hyde, who the 49ers took in the second round of the 2014 draft. Hyde was arguably the most complete back coming out of college this season, and his straight forward style is a perfect fit behind San Francisco's mauling offensive line. The 49ers will be looking to mold Hyde this season, as he's more than likely to be Gore's heir apparent.
The wild card in this competition is Lattimore, as no one knows if he will ever be the same player he was in college after sustaining two major knee injuries. If he can regain most of the form that saw him average 4.8 yards per carry and score 38 touchdowns at the collegiate level, he could force the 49ers to consider a time share with Hyde in 2015 and beyond. However, if he's not up to par, it could re-open the door for Hunter long term.
So how will this all play out?
If all of the backs are healthy, expect to see Gore still get most of the touches, but what happens behind him is likely to vary. One week Hunter could find himself in his familiar role, while the next could bring Hyde center stage behind Gore. It's also entirely possible that Lattimore plays very little regardless of health, considering the fact that he hasn't been in a game in so long.
Another factor that has to be considered is the possibility that the 49ers open up their offense this season and throw the ball more. In this scenario, the amount of touches for the backs will decrease, leaving even a smaller piece of the pie to share.
Regardless of how this unfolds, San Francisco is in an enviable position. The depth they have accumulated at running back will protect against Gore taking a step back or getting banged up at his advanced age, and has also set them up for the future. In the end, expect the 49ers to do what is necessary to win games, as their championship window may only be open for so long.
Al Sacco has been a 49ers writer across various publications since 2013. He's been a featured guest on numerous podcasts and had his work used by ESPN NFL Insiders. Follow Al on twitter @AlSacco49