The 49ers have some obvious holes to fill at wide receiver and cornerback this offseason. While many analysts are quick to address these needs, one position remains a little more taboo than the rest — running back. The reason for this is that many 49er faithful dread thinking about the day that Frank Gore will no longer be a viable part of the 49ers’ backfield. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that day may be coming sooner than later.
Frank Gore’s road to the NFL was not an easy one. He won the starting job as a Miami Hurricane in his sophomore year in 2002. His season was cut short when he suffered a torn ACL. Gore played one more season at Miami before being drafted in the third round by the 49ers in 2005. Since then Gore has become the 49ers’ all-time leading rusher and has been one of the most dependable backs in the league. Aside from being placed on IR for a hip injury in 2010, Gore has avoided serious injury as a pro.
The question plaguing the 49ers is whether Gore’s days as a 49er are limited. He is still a very good running back, but he is no longer an elite runner. While he still is my choice for any red zone plays, Frank can no longer carry the load on his own. Gore is under contract through 2014 and is scheduled to become a free agent in 2015. Whether Gore returns is anyone’s guess. While I, and virtually any 49er fan, would love to see Gore play the remainder of his NFL career as a 49er, I am also realistic in my expectations.
Gore’s productivity has declined in the last few years — not necessarily stats-wise, but in terms of consistency. Gore’s bruising up-the-middle running style likely has something to do with the decreased productivity. While Gore’s season totals and averages have not made drastic plunges, Gore just doesn’t seem like the same runner.
This season alone shows Gore’s inconsistency. Gore had three games where he topped 100 yards rushing. He also had six games where he rushed for less than 50 yards. This year was Gore’s lowest yards-per-game average since his rookie year in 2005. Gore’s production in the first half of the season is markedly better than his second half. This can also be attributed to the wear and tear of Gore’s body.
As Gore gets older, this pattern of inconsistency likely will increase. Gore’s ability to get involved with the 49ers passing game has also taken a significant drop-off. Although this statistic can also be attributed to head coach Jim Harbaugh’s game plan with Gore. This inconsistency can really hurt the 49ers, especially at the latter half of the season when Gore’s productivity is crucial.
This year the 49ers seemingly made efforts to limit Gore’s touches and keep him fresh for the playoffs. The only problem with this strategy is reaching the playoffs with a part-time lead rusher. The 49ers need a heavy-duty back that can take over games.
Aside from Gore, the 49ers’ current running back roster has been largely underwhelming. Kendall Hunter has been good but should only be rostered in a complimentary change-of-pace role. LaMichael James and Anthony Dixon have largely been utilized as special teams players. The 49ers do not need both James and Dixon as they are very similar players.
The 49ers’ running back hopes likely rest on the legs of Marcus Lattimore. The 49ers drafted Lattimore in a similar position as Gore. Lattimore had an impressive college career but dropped in ranking because of a gruesome leg injury. Lattimore will play his first snap as a 49er next year. While it is too early to tell, because Lattimore’s running style is similar to Gore, his success can ultimately render Gore obsolete.
Bottom line, should the 49ers re-sign Gore? Yes, but only if the price is right.
The 49ers have some serious salary cap issues to address in the coming years. As much as I hate to say this, Gore is dispensable. His age will soon catch up to him and the 49ers do not need to take a salary cap hit by overpaying Gore.
What Frank does provide that no other running back on the 49ers can is leadership and experience. This is where Gore becomes invaluable. If the 49ers want to develop a young core of effective runners, they’re best bet is to re-negotiate Gore’s contract and hold on to him for a few more years. Gore made $3.3 million in 2013 and is scheduled to make the same in 2014. He will likely command a higher price tag if he tests free agency.
Re-signing Gore will truly be a difficult balancing act for the 49ers front office if Gore declines to take a pay cut.
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