Position profile: Running backs

Today we begin a position-by-position breakdown of the 49ers with a look at the running backs.


A year ago, the 49ers were definitely in the market for a running back in the draft. Coach Mike Singletary and GM Scot McCloughan clearly stated that preference. Sure enough, the 49ers invested a third-round pick in running back Glen Coffee.


But instead of getting a change-of-pace runner, as Singletary said he preferred, the 49ers got a power runner who has a one-cut-and-get-upfield style that makes him similar to Frank Gore. (The Jets took Shonn Greene at No. 65, and the 49ers selected Coffee with the 74th pick. The next running back was not chosen until the Panthers selected Mike Goodson at No. 111.)


The 49ers picked up a small, fast runner as an undrafted free agent. But Kory Sheets was nowhere near as polished as Coffee, and he did not win over the coaching staff. He struggled in blitz pickup. He was also not as versatile in special teams as Coffee. Sheets did not make the 49ers’ 53-man roster, and the Dolphins plucked him off the practice squad during the season.


So do the 49ers need another running back to give them more of an outside threat? I think it will be difficult for a rookie to get much playing time on offense. But, clearly, where the 49ers need help is in the return game. It would fill a major need to get an elusive running back to play no more than a handful of offensive snaps a game while also taking over the punt- and kick-return chores.


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Nearly half of all 49ers run plays (47.9 percent) were directed straight up the middle, according to the NFL’s Game Statistic and Information System. The 49ers had success with a 4.84-yard average. But they might need to provide more of a threat on the outside. No team can rely on running sweeps all the time in the NFL. Tennessee‘s Chris Johnson has amazing speed but he uses his quickness, not with a heavy dose of sweeps, but to bounce inside runs off tackle. The addition of that element could only help the 49ers’ offense.


By the way, here’s how the 49ers’ run plays were distributed:


Left end: 27 runs (4.81-yard average)

Left tackle: 23 runs (2.38 average)

Left guard: 32 runs (2.0 average)

Middle: 171 runs (4.84 average)

Right guard: 38 runs (5.45 average)

Right tackle: 39 runs (2.95 average)

Right end: 27 runs (6.07 average)


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FrankG.jpgRB Frank Gore
: He ranked seventh in the NFL with 1,526 yards from scrimmage. Gore rushed for more than 1,000 yards for his team-record fourth consecutive season despite missing, essentially, three full games with ankle injuries. There really not much nitpicking to do with Gore’s game. A team can definitely win a championship with him as the featured running back. Signed through 2011.


FB Moran Norris: He got off to a slow start. Then, he rarely played when the 49ers went primarily with one back and two tight ends as their base offense. Later in the season, Norris got more playing time and he blocked much better for Gore. This is one of those offseason projects for Singletary and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye. Are the 49ers better when Norris is on the field? I think there will continue to be a need for two-back sets, and Norris will be back for that role. Signed through 2011.


Coffee.jpgRB Glen Coffee
: He left Alabama after his junior season and had an impressive rookie training camp to solidify his spot as the No. 2 running back during the regular season. Once the season started, he didn’t do much. He carried 83 times for 226 yards (2.7 average) and one touchdown. He was very good in blitz pickup, and he saw a lot of action on special teams. The 49ers think very highly of him, but there’s not a whole lot he can do when Gore is healthy and playing at a high level. Signed through 2012.


RB Michael Robinson: He is one of those players that every team wants to have on the roster. He’ll have a role on this team for as long as he is continues to handle his special-teams duties with aplomb. He can serve as a backup fullback and third-string running back. Signed through 2012.


FB Brit Miller: He was a linebacker in college who made the transition to fullback in training camp. He was the classic developmental player who worked hard on the practice squad and was promoted to a role on special teams in December. He has a lot of work to do to put himself in a position to challenge Norris for the starting job. Signed through 2010.


RB Thomas Clayton: His season ended in the first exhibition game when he sustained a torn ACL. He has a long road to get back, and he faces long odds to secure a spot on a regular-season roster. Scheduled to be exclusive-rights free agent.


FB Jehuu Caulcrick: The 49ers recently signed him to a contract for the 2010 season. He is 6-0, 250. In 2008, the Jets signed him as an undrafted free agent. He also spent time last year with the Buccaneers. The 49ers will give him a glance in the offseason to determine whether he can help the club. Signed through 2011.


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The 49ers signed veteran cornerback Keith Smith to a contract for 2010. Smith originally signed with the 49ers on Nov. 3 after Nate Clements sustained a broken shoulder blade. He was released on Dec. 28 when the 49ers claimed defensive tackle Derek Walker off waivers from Seattle.


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