How much will Frank Gore's production sink because of his backfield competition with the 49ers?
As fantasy football fans know well, the workhorse tailback has become an increasingly rare commodity as the league trends toward more specialized backfield roles and pass-happy offenses. For the past six seasons in San Francisco, however, the 49ers' ground game has been fueled primarily by Frank Gore. Yet with Gore coming off a season that saw his workload and production dip precipitously in the second half and with a suddenly crowded backfield in San Francisco, are his days as a "bell cow" back coming to an end?
Looking at the totals from last season, Gore enjoyed a strong season as the 49ers emerged as a conference power. The Miami product posted 1,211 yards on the ground, second only to his inspired 2006 breakout season, on his way to eclipsing Hall of Famer Joe "The Jet" Perry's franchise rushing record. Gore played an entire regular season for just the second time in his career, and during a stretch from Weeks 4 to 9, posted a franchise-record five straight 100-yard outings that saw him rack up more than half of his total rushing yards for the season. Gore also carried the ball the most times since his 2006 effort and played inspired ball during the team's first playoff run since 2002. As a fantasy asset, however, Gore produced 10.2 points per game using ESPN standard scoring -- the lowest average of his career as the starter -- and finished with the 15th-most points at the position.
On the surface, Gore answered growing questions over his durability, especially after playing in just 11 games in 2010. The counter to this notion is that while Gore started all 16 last season, he didn't finish games in Week 3 against the Bengals due to an ankle ailment, Week 10 versus the Giants with a knee issue and in the season finale versus the Rams. The Giants game marked the veteran's first game with zero yards in his career. It was reported that Gore sprained his right ankle versus Dallas in Week 2 and injured his left ankle versus Washington in Week 9. After enduring 159 carries in the first eight games -- a pace that would have set a new career-high -- it was clear that the bruising bowling ball of a back was wearing down.
Attrition is a given for an NFL player over the course of the grueling season, and this is especially true for a feature back. In an attempt to preserve a playmaker clearly showing signs of wear, the team began to cap Gore's touches in the second half of the season. Gore was given 21.5 total touches per game in the first eight games of the season -- a nearly identical clip to the 21.4 touches he averaged from 2006-10 -- and just 15.9 per game in the final eight. During the first half of 2011, Gore posted an elite 4.9 yards per carry, but averaged just 3.5 per carry in the second half.
Maybe the most disconcerting numbers from last season are the 17 receptions and 114 receiving yards (career-low 6.7 yards per reception) Gore tallied. After averaging 51 catches and 430 receiving yards over his previous five seasons as the starter, this marked the lowest reception total since his rookie campaign and the lowest receiving yardage total of his career. Once considered a PPR maven, it's unclear what Gore's role in the passing game might be in 2012, especially with soft-handed rookie LaMichael James and several new wideouts joining the roster.
Actions, or rather acquisitions, speak louder than anything else in the business of professional football. The additions of veteran Brandon Jacobs and second-round selection James, who left Oregon as the active FBS rushing leader, are signs of a team placing more value on depth at the position with an eye on keeping their top back fresh when the carries matter most. Second-year tailback Kendall Hunter, who impressed in his rookie season as Gore's primary backup, remains the mix, as well. The questions looming over Gore's fantasy prospects aren't whether he's the most capable, versatile and proven back on the roster, because he is. His place atop the depth chart remains unquestioned. The concern for his fantasy potential in 2012 is that the 49ers will employ a deliberate share of the work with his bevy of backfield mates in order to keep their best back fresher for both the regular season and what they hope will be another deep playoff run.
In early June, the team's running backs coach Tom Rathman spoke to the San Francisco Chronicle about Gore and the busy backfield: "We need to keep him healthy. We need to keep him fresh so he's an impact player for us." Rathman went on to explain that with a share of the work on the way, "I don't know if everyone's going to be happy with the time that they get."
Assuming that he makes the team, it's difficult to imagine Jacobs having a significant role outside of spot duties in short-yardage scenarios. Rathman told the San Francisco Chronicle as much: "We need him to pack it up inside and run over guys and be physical as a ball carrier. If we want to run outside, we'll put somebody else in."
If Jacobs were to secure a steady gig as the goal-line back, it would further cut into Gore's fantasy value. For long third down situations and as a steady reprieve for Gore, it seems likely that Hunter and James factor into a share of an expanded change-of-pace backup role.
Frank Gore's Fantasy Profile, Since 2006
The key to Gore remaining a valuable real and fantasy football contributor is staying on the field throughout the season while retaining the burst and big-play ability that has defined his best moments. With the coaching staff's deliberate agenda to pace the workload of their best back, it's likely that Gore sees a career-low in total touches as the starter. This doesn't mean that Gore can't be a valid second running back in fantasy, but it does make it quite unlikely that he ever nears the production peaks he set in 2006 and 2009. The biggest dip for Gore's value is in PPR formats, where a significant amount of point production vanished in 2011. Even in standard leagues, there were more than 30 points from receiving yards left on the table last season given the dramatic dip from his previously lofty season averages.
The 49ers are adapting to this era of specialized roles in the backfield, and while Gore's total touches will take a hit, it means he'll take less hits. There is certainly potential for Gore to be fresher down the stretch of the regular season when fantasy crowns are won. He's still the main guy in this running game and should end up being closer to a feature back in terms of total touches than a situational role.
Gore is projected as the 17th running back in our draft kit and is being selected in ESPN live drafts as a No. 2 fantasy back in terms of auction value and ADP. After being priced as a No. 1 fantasy back the past five years, with an average ADP of 9.8, he's currently going 35th on average overall in ESPN leagues. There would be considerable risk investing in Gore if the draft price and statistical expectations remained similar to the past several seasons, but both the rankings and his average draft position have been reasonably adjusted for the expected lightened load and inherent injury risk.