Jackson rivals Gore as NFC West's top running back
To begin our position-by-position comparison breakdown of the NFC West as teams prepare for Sunday’s regular-season openers, we start at running back, where the 49ers still have as good a lead back as any team but no longer rank as the king of the division at the position.
That distinction would now belong to St. Louis, which has brought in two productive veterans to complement star lead back Steven Jackson, who has played for the NFC in the Pro Bowl after each of the past two seasons.
Jackson was the NFC West’s rushing champion last year with 1,241 yards, extending his run of consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons to six. He will be joined by Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, the No. 5 overall pick of the 2005 NFL draft, and speedster Jerius Norwood, who is coming of an injury but in 2006 and 2007 averaged more than six yards a carry while gaining more than 600 yards each season as a backup with Atlanta.
The rest of the division lags behind both the 49ers and Rams at the position.
Arizona traded Tim Hightower, its leading rusher last year with 736 yards, to Washington on July 31, then promptly lost second-round draft pick Ryan Williams for the season to injury during the exhibition season. Williams was vying for a lead role in the backfield, but the Cardinals now will be counting on recently-acquired veteran Chester Taylor to challenge holdover Beanie Wells for that role.
It has been a long way down at running back since the Shaun Alexander days in Seattle, which still is looking for a quality replacement for the 2005 NFL MVP and hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Alexander rumbled for 1,880 yards rushing during that 2005 season – 456 yards more than the Seahawks rush for as a team in 2010.
Here’s the breakdown of the NFC West’s running backs:
Starters: RB Frank Gore, FB Moran Norris
Backups: RB Anthony Dixon, RB Kendall Hunter, FB Bruce Miller
Unit analysis: Gore appears refreshed and primed for a big season after recently signing a three-year, $21 million contract extension. The two-time Pro Bowler is on his way to becoming San Francisco’s all-time leading rusher and will likely get there this season if he avoids injury. Hunter finished the preseason as the NFL’s summer rushing champion and will battle with Davis for snaps and touches that don’t go to Gore, a competition that could continue throughout the season. The 49ers also figure to work the strengths of both youngsters into their game plan behind Gore. Norris can be a battering-ram lead blocker, but he could find his job threatened should versatile rookie Miller continue to develop. A detailed analysis of the 49ers at the running back position can be found elsewhere on this site via this link.
NinersDigest rank in division: 2
Starters: Beanie Wells, Anthony Sherman
Backups: LaRod Stephens-Howling, Alfonso Smith, Chester Taylor.
Unit analysis: With second-round draft pick Ryan Williams being lost for the season during the preseason, this is Wells' time to shine. There is no one pressing him for his job – Williams possibly would have won the starting role this summer – and he finally is the team's featured back. He appears to be running as well as he did at the end of his rookie season after averaging just 3.4 yards a carry last year, when he finished second on the team with 397 yards rushing. Stephens-Howling is a capable third-down back, and he is underrated as a runner. But he's small size will limit him to a few carries a game. He tends to wear down during the season. While Smith has shown some ability, the Cardinals have signed veteran Taylor to be the top complement to Wells if he can handle the role. Taylor rushed for just 267 yards on 112 carries last season as the No. 2 back for the Chicago Bears, with his 2.38 average holding up as the worst since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger among running backs with at least 100 carries in a season. Sherman, a rookie, is a physical blocker who has been pushed by Maui'a. For now the starting job belongs to Sherman.
NinersDigest rank in division: 4
St. Louis Rams
Starter: RB Steven Jackson
Backups: RB Cadillac Williams, RB Jerious Norwood, FB Brit Miller
Unit analysis: Even with quarterback Sam Bradford's presence, Jackson is still an important leader on the field and in the locker room. He worked hard in the offseason, reducing his body fat from six percent to four percent, and is at the stage of his career where he wants to win. Williams has shown good quickness and pass-catching ability in training camp and is the clear backup to Jackson. He will likely be used in certain packages, especially as a receiver. Norwood, a year removed from major knee surgery, isn't all the way back, but still has tremendous speed. It's possible he could return kickoffs to give Danny Amendola a breather. Miller, the former 49er, has developed into a solid blocker and can also carry the ball in a pinch. The Rams won't used the fullback a lot, but Miller is the man when they do. He is also very good on special teams.
NinersDigest rank in division: 1
Starters: RB Marshawn Lynch, FB Michael Robinson
Backups: RB Justin Forsett, RB Leon Washington
Unit analysis: It has now been five consecutive seasons since the Seahawks have produced a 1,000-yard rusher. That could change this season with Lynch expected to get the majority of the carries after finishing as the team’s leading rusher last year despite joining Seattle four games into the regular season after being acquired via trade with Buffalo. Lynch rushed for 573 yards but averaged just 3.5 yards per carry before heating up in the playoffs. Forsett rushed for 532 yards last year, averaging 4.4 a pop, and he and Washington will get the nod on third downs. Robinson, who joined the Seahawks last September after he was a surprise final cut by the 49ers, isn't a traditional fullback, but he is enough of a thumper in the running game and also a standout special teams performer to have an impact. He averaged 6.4 yards in a limited running role last season.
NinersDigest rank in division: 3