We're continuing our position-by-position grades of the San Francisco 49ers in 2011 today with a look at the teams' roster of running backs. San Francisco ran the ball well in 2011, as was expected under Jim Harbaugh. It's true that he brought a variation of the West Coast Offense to San Francisco, but it was a variation that relied on tight ends and running backs. As the tight ends started slow, the running backs were counted on more and more, and carried on strong for the most part.
Let's jump right into the grades.
Frank Gore was the bell cow of the offense, and the focal point. In all actuality, the 49ers would have been much better off if they used Gore more often and in a different way, at times. It's hard to think about Jim Harbaugh and his offense not being utilized in its best way, but it was clear near the end of the season that they were getting desperate to innovate with the running game. They tried to fix something that wasn't broken, and Gore struggled. That being said, Gore did, at times, suffer from an inability to get going early on, and that in turn hurt the team. There were times when the blocking was good and he'd just stumble, and he was injured at times, once again. Gore was one of the top running backs in 2012, but it's hard to see his production lasting. He also didn't catch the ball as well as he did in recent seasons. B+
Kendall Hunter spelled Gore as the change-of-pace back and, as a rookie, he showed some great things. He didn't get a ton of carries, and there were certainly moments in which he looked like he wasn't totally adapting to the NFL game well, but when he had the ball in his hands and just a little bit of space, he showed flashes of a dynamic playmaker and the 49ers should feel good about that. Outside of one game early on, Hunter also pass protected very well for a rookie and someone his size, so that's another sign going forward. A little bit more was expected of him and his carries, but the 49ers have every reason to be excited about him going forward. B+
Anthony Dixon is one of the most well-loved 49ers thanks to his skills on the dance floor and his colorful personality on Twitter, but how does that translate to the field? In all actuality, Dixon ran a little bit better than usual, not choosing to dance around, but it was pretty clear that he's the third option going forward. A definite positive is the fact that he pass protects well, has the build to potentially take some snaps at fullback, and was a contributor to what was perhaps the league's best special teams unit. C+
Bruce Miller came in as a rookie and played out of his mind. The guy was a defensive end in college and immediately made the transition to fullback. His biggest tool as a defensive end has made him a powerful and punishing blocker: his ability to use leverage. He was so good with that on the defensive side of the ball, and he's used it to toss around defensive players on the offensive side with the 49ers. Miller wasn't perfect, though, making rookie mistakes in his assignments, letting Alex Smith and the other running backs take punishment. The fact that he was a rookie learning a new position and that he looked useful in the passing game make his potential going forward pretty darn high. A-
Moran Norris lost his starting job after missing time with an injury, and to his credit, he played well before it happened. Most 49ers fans won't admit as much, given the fact that Norris has been the scapegoat since returning to the team. For the most part, he actually has deserved the flack that came his way, but he did look decidedly less useless this time around than before. Still, he's not half the player he was back in 2006, and the fact that he's no longer just being out-muscled, he's being out-smarted means he's not likely to return in 2012. The grade is also marked down because he is a non-factor in the passing game. D+