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Anthony Dixon, who was essentially the 49ers’ No. 3 running back last season, left the club to sign as a free agent with the Buffalo Bills in the offseason.
But it’s not so simple as just plugging in Marcus Lattimore, who sat out his rookie season while rehabbing a knee injury that cut short his finals season at South Carolina, to take Dixon's spot on the roster.
Dixon was a mainstay on special teams. But Lattimore is never expected to run down the field on kick coverage. Backup running backs generally have to be able to contribute in other areas, but the 49ers will make an exception with Lattimore due to his injury history.
LaMichael James, who played just 28 snaps of offense last season, ended the season as the team’s return specialist. His status for this season is uncertain. He would gladly welcome a change of scenery if it leads to more opportunities to get on the field. But general manager Trent Baalke reiterated recently the 49ers will not trade James.
Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter return as the 49ers’ top two running backs. And Bruce Miller’s status as the starting fullback is safe after he signed a contract extension in March through the 2017 season.
Who's here: RB Frank Gore, FB Bruce Miller, RB Kendall Hunter, RB Marcus Lattimore, RB LaMichael James, FB Will Tukuafu, RB Jewel Hampton
Draft needs: The 49ers do not need another little running back, that’s for sure. Do not be surprised if on the third day the 49ers select a running back of 220 pounds or more. Dixon was sometimes used as the 49ers’ short-yardage back, and they could look for someone to take over that role. Also, Gore enters the final year of his contract. The 49ers must approach this draft as if Gore will not be back in 2015. Hunter also enters the final year of his contract. And, really, there’s no guarantee Lattimore will return to his pre-injury form. So a pick here would be with the idea of looking one year down the road.
Good fits: Could the 49ers final select one of Jim Harbaugh’s former college players in the draft? Tyler Gaffney (Stanford) is among a handful of running backs who would appear to fit the mold of what the 49ers might seek in this draft. Storm Johnson (Central Florida) rushed for 1,139 yards and 14 touchdowns. He excelled on all three downs but had some issues with fumbles. Running backs coach Tom Rathman would offer Johnson constant reminders on the four points of pressure to avoid putting the ball on the ground. Terrance West (Towson) absolutely tore it up at the FCS left with 2,568 yards rushing and 41 touchdowns as a junior. He wisely declared for the draft to avoid being run into the ground as a college senior.