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The 49ers have had a 1,000-yard rusher each of the last four seasons. In 1997 and 1998 it was Garrison Hearst and in 1999 and 2000 it was Charlie Garner. Garner is playing for the Oakland Raiders now and Hearst is attempting to come back from an injury that has kept him on the sidelines the last two seasons.
This season the 49ers have several candidates to be their starting running back. This is also the first season that the 49ers have their entire starting offensive line from the previous year returning. The candidates for the starting running back job are Garrison Hearst, Paul Smith, Kevan Barlow and Jonas Lewis.
Garrison Hearst is the guy that shattered all the 49er-rushing records during the 1998 season. He rushed for 1,570 yards that season before being injured in a playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons. Hearst has proven to be a powerful runner with great hands. He has often lined up as a receiver when called upon to do so. Hearst is attempting a remarkable comeback from a devastating injury that could have ended his career.
So far in preseason, he has shown some flashes of his old self, but he has not impressed the coaches enough to be named as the starter. He has been given the chance to showcase his skills, but has not been overly impressive. He has made some nice plays but his yards per rush average is much lower than what the 49ers would like to see.
The 49ers need to clear some room under the salary cap in order to free up the money to sign five players to their practice squad and they are interested in signing free agent kicker Doug Brien to compete for the starting kicking job. One way of freeing up the money needed would be to release Hearst. Hearst is a fan favorite and a leader in the locker room. His release would pave the way for fellow running backs Kevan Barlow, Paul Smith and Jonas Lewis.
Kevan Barlow is the rookie running back the 49ers drafted from Pittsburgh with their third round pick this year. Barlow has excellent size and good speed. He can beat you with his inside running ability while also displaying the quickness to bounce a play outside and turn the corner. He played in the West Coast offense at the University of Pittsburgh under head coach Walt Harris.
According to General Manager Terry Donahue, “Barlow runs with a very low center of gravity, he breaks a lot of tackles and makes a lot of yards after contact. He is a bog, punishing runner who should be able to carry the ball a lot.”
Head Coach Steve Mariucci says, “We haven’t had a big back like him here in a long time. You can do a lot of things with him and he has some terrific potential.”
In his first preseason action, Barlow ran for 66 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. His combination of size, ability and confidence makes him an interesting option for the starting job.
Paul Smith is a second year player from Texas – El Paso that has the ability to play at both running back positions as well as return kicks. He is a tough straight-ahead runner who is very difficult to tackle once he is past the line of scrimmage with a full head of steam.
Smith has not seen much playing time, but has been impressive when given a chance. His ability to return kicks as well as make tackles on special teams makes him a valuable player to have.
Jonas Lewis led the NFC in rushing in the preseason last year. He has excellent vision, which allows him to hit the holes quickly and turn the corner well. In limited playing time in his first season he became an excellent special teams player and showed the ability to be an effective kick returner.
Lewis is more likely to be used as a back up runner than to win the starting job, but at the same time has shown the ability to be very effective if needed to spell the starter.
One reason for the 49ers successful running game has been the excellent play of their full backs Fred Beasley and Terry Jackson.
Fred Beasley has become one of the NFL’s best full backs over the last two seasons. He has great hands, running power and excellent blocking technique, which makes him a perfect fit for the 49ers style of the West Coast Offense. He showed his versatility last season scoring three touchdowns rushing and another three receiving.
Terry Jackson has been very impressive during the preseason so far, impressing coaches with his power and shifty moves. He only ran the ball 5 times and caught 5 passes last season but still scored two touchdowns. Jackson also served as the captain of the special teams last season. He led the team with 19 tackles.
Another reason the 49ers can expect to have another 1,000-yard rusher is the outstanding play of the offensive line. The line was among the league leaders in sacks allowed last season. The ability to protect the Quarterback and open holes for the running game allowed the 49ers to once again have a top five offense in 2000.
It is my opinion that with the situation the 49ers are in they will have to release Garrison Hearst. This would be a move strictly resulting from the salary cap, not one that the 49ers head office would want to make. Hearst has provided the 49ers with some spectacular plays and outstanding leadership in the locker room and on the field. The fact remains that the 49ers have other running backs that have potential and need to free up some money, which really leaves them with very few choices.
Kevan Barlow looks to me to be the front-runner for the starting job. He was drafted with the idea that he had the potential to become a starter. It just might be happening quicker than he or the 49ers had planned. It is likely that they will use a combination of running backs similar to what the Raiders did last season. By mixing it up with Barlow, Paul Smith and Jonas Lewis and their different skills and abilities the 49ers could keep opposing defenses guessing.
I am looking forward to seeing the development of Kevan Barlow and the potentially explosive 49er offense this season.
As a fan I would be very disappointed if the 49ers were to release Garrison Hearst, but understanding of the reasons they had to. Hearst was one of my favorite 49ers during the 1997 and 1998 seasons. His performance during the 1998 season, including the 96-yard overtime run on opening day to the 198-yard effort against the Giants, is one that will remain impressive in 49er history for many years to come.