Posted June 08, 2012

Huddle Up: 49ers must be wary of overprotecting Frank Gore

San Francisco 49ers

Frank Gore has averaged just under 1,100 rushing yards per season in his career. (Getty Images)

Throughout the NFL’s lengthy offseason, “Huddle Up” will provide you with a quick take on an important story or development from around the league …

A couple weeks back on Audibles, the topic of LeSean McCoy’s workload came up. The Eagles would love to cut back on the league-high 894 snaps McCoy played in 2011, especially in light of his new five-year, $35 million contract, but there is not really anyone on their depth chart who has proven he’s ready to pick up the slack.

San Francisco has the opposite problem.

Earlier this week, 49ers running backs coach Tom Rathman talked about wanting to keep Frank Gore “fresh so he’s an impact player” by spreading carries around. Rathman has the horses to do that, with new free-agent pickup Brandon Jacobs and draft pick LaMichael James joining Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon behind Gore.

But while Philadelphia has to find a way to give McCoy a breather here and there, Rathman and the 49ers ought to be concerned with taking things too far the other direction.

Gore is an elite running back in the NFL and has topped 200 carries each of the past six seasons, with a 282-carry effort last year en route to 1,211 yards on the ground. He also has 287 career receptions to his credit, though the 17 he had last year were his lowest total since his rookie season of 2005 — from 2006-10, Gore averaged 51 catches a year.

But Gore has also missed 10 games to injury since 2007 and, heading into his seventh NFL season at 29 years of age, is already pushing the short shelf life running backs have in this league. So you can understand San Francisco’s desire to protect Gore.

And yet …

“We don’t know if everyone’s going to be happy with the time they get because we don’t know what the situation is right now,” Rathman said.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com responded by wondering aloud if any 49ers’ back would be satisfied with his role in 2012, Gore included.

The player with the most to lose is Gore, who played two-thirds of the 49ers’ offensive plays last season. He rushed for 1,211 yards — the second-most of his seven-year career — during the regular season. He excelled in two playoff games, averaging 5.6 yards a carry to go along with a team-high 13 receptions (after catching just 17 passes in the regular season).

How much is too much, then, when it comes to resting Gore?

Hunter and Dixon combined for 141 carries last season, while Jacobs had 152 with the Giants. James, meanwhile, ran the ball 247 times for Oregon.

Each of those backs seems capable of a moderate workload, if asked — though not all of them will be active for games, and it’s possible Dixon won’t even make the final roster. And the 49ers have a pretty good idea of how they might be able to use Jacobs (a bulky, inside runner) and James (a home-run threat who could play on passing downs).

But even if you add up all that depth, the result doesn’t match Gore’s impact when he’s on the field. Jacobs’ production has steadily declined; James has never played an NFL down and spent his college days in a shotgun-based, read-option offense that could not be further from what San Francisco runs; and Dixon seems headed for a career-backup role.

Only Hunter, who nearly matched Gore’s yards-per-carry average last season (4.3 to 4.2) while getting 170 attempts, has shown that he can excel in his specific environment.

This San Francisco offense has been built around Gore for years, and that was definitely the case last season as Jim Harbaugh rode his ground attack to the NFC title game. The 49ers finished third in rushing attempts (498) and eighth overall in rushing yards (2,044), compared to just 31st in passes attempted (451).

Increasingly, teams are seeing the value and necessity of having two or three capable backs — hence Philadelphia’s search for a reliable No. 2 option behind the electric McCoy.

San Francisco has successfully achieved that balance and realistically could go five-deep at the running back position. Still, there’s a definite drop-off from Gore to the Jacobs/James/Hunter/Dixon quartet, so overreaching in an effort to keep Gore healthy would do just as much harm to the 49ers as good.

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