In the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers took a chance on a talented, but injury-plagued Miami Hurricanes’ running back by the name of Frank Gore. Despite being one of the most productive tailbacks in the college ranks that season, teams were wary of drafting Gore due to his injury-laden past. However, the Niners had the last laugh when Gore went on to become one of the most prolific and successful running backs of the last nine seasons.
Sadly, the Frank Gore era is nearing its end in San Francisco. Entering his age-31 season and the final year of his contract, this is likely the last season Gore dons the red and gold. Though he looked as strong as ever last year in his age-30 season, rushing for 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns, the 49ers have begun to earnestly consider the future at the running back position following Gore’s eventual retirement.
Last year, they took a chance in the fourth round by drafting South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, a player with a very similar college career to Gore, injuries and all. Before suffering a gruesome knee injury in November of the previous season, Lattimore had looked like the surefire top running back in the 2013 draft class.
Then, with their second round pick in the 2014 draft, the Niners selected former Ohio State tailback Carlos Hyde. A four-year player at the collegiate level, Hyde possesses a similar style of running to Gore with his bruising, downhill mentality. He too had been considered the top back in his draft class.
So now the obvious questions is – who is Gore’s true heir?
The Case For Marcus Lattimore
The number of similarities between Marcus Lattimore and Frank Gore is quite alarming. Both were highly-sought-after high school stars from the South. Both had highly successful freshmen seasons, leading their teams to national bowl games and becoming part of the All-Freshmen Team. Both then suffered torn anterior cruciate ligaments in their respective knees in their sophomore campaigns, only to suffer the same injury to the other knee in the following year.
Like Gore, Lattimore is really a complete package at the halfback position. He is a very good pass blocker and pass catcher out of the backfield, meaning he can succeed as a three-down tailback at the NFL level. As a runner, he is much like Gore in that he possesses elite vision and field awareness.
In his freshman year he played behind a poor offensive line, yet he was still able to be a productive running back. He rarely left the field, as he was both a dangerous weapon in the run game and a capable option in the passing game. Lattimore was, like Gore, the heart and soul of that South Carolina team, carrying them to the SEC Championship game against Auburn. His intangibles are everything you expect out of your starting running back – a willing pass-blocker, a mental toughness in the trenches, and a scrambler for extra yards after contact.
With Lattimore, the San Francisco 49ers are essentially getting a near carbon-copy of Frank Gore – a gritty and underrated, but winning running back.
The Case For Carlos Hyde
Like Marcus Lattimore, Carlos Hyde shares several traits with Frank Gore, but he is not an exact clone of the incumbent Niner tailback. Hyde has something that Lattimore and Gore do not – big-play ability.
That isn’t to say that Lattimore and Gore do not have the ability to rip off a game-changing run. We saw evidence of that in Gore’s fifty-yard run to set up the game-winning field goal against Seattle during the regular season last year. But Hyde possesses real north-south and east-west speed. He didn’t really display that speed at the combine (4.66 40-yard dash time), but he has natural football speed.
Carlos Hyde does not have the world-class field vision that Gore has, but he makes up for it with his lower-body and upper-body strength. Hyde is a battering ram of a tailback, willing to punish linebackers and safeties who dare come up to tackle him. He was rarely brought down by one defender in college. Because of his ability to lower his shoulders into defenders, Hyde was able to turn a five-yard gain into a nine-yard gain. Much of his success at the next level will come from his raw power.
The Niners won’t miss too much in pass protection with Hyde. He was one of the best in the business at the college level because of his low center of gravity. Rarely was he caught reaching; he was excellent at reading blitz pickups and absorbing interior rushers. Hyde is also exceptional catching passes out of the backfield. His soft hands allow him to effortlessly secure the ball and produce yardage after the catch in a way that many receivers would be jealous of.
In Carlos Hyde, the San Francisco 49ers get a running back that fits the mold of today’s NFL – someone who, on any given day, can produce whether he gets five or thirty carries due to his raw downhill power paired with his elite pass-catching ability.
Luckily, the Niners don’t need to make this decision this season. Both will be given limited touches in their debut seasons due to the presence of the all-powerful Gore and incumbent understudy Kendall Hunter. Hyde might receive some goal-line touches due to his size and power. This is a competition that will be discussed during next year’s offseason. Both are talented running backs who will be part of the future of this team. We’ll just have to wait and see who gets those few extra carries on game day.