Commentary

Gore rank drops with Jacobs

Updated: March 29, 2012, 11:36 AM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

So much for the Kendall Hunter hype train.

Personally, I think Hunter could handle the job as Frank Gore's backup in the San Francisco 49ers' backfield. Hunter may be short (5-foot-7) but he's no lightweight. He's 200 pounds of quick-twitch speed, and I still think he has ability similar to Ray Rice. Then again, I'm not in the 49ers' meeting room, and for now Jim Harbaugh & Co. appear to have decided Hunter is mostly a third-down back. How do I know this? Because San Francisco just inked Brandon Jacobs to a one-year deal.

[+] EnlargeKendall Hunter
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezKendall Hunter average 4.2 yards per carry and scored 2 touchdowns in 112 carries in 2011.

Now, this certainly isn't a major financial commitment to a player who's become known for somewhat erratic behavior and a running style that doesn't befit his massive (6-foot-4, 264 pounds) frame. Toward the end of his career with the New York Giants, he lost lead-back duties to Ahmad Bradshaw; in the 2011 season, Bradshaw averaged just north of 14 carries per game, while Jacobs averaged just shy of 11, and Bradshaw actually scored nine rushing TDs to the much bigger man's seven. Jacobs will be 30 in July, and there's no guarantee he'll even be the 49ers' short-yardage back in '12. He could very well wind up an afterthought. But for the moment, for as long as he's on this roster, we have to consider him a threat to Gore's TDs.

Everyone knows Gore is an injury risk. It's true that he appeared in 16 games last season for the first time since '06, but it's also true that the Niners all but eliminated him in the passing game (he had a mere 17 catches, after averaging 51 grabs per season over his previous five injury-shortened campaigns) and rested him for long stretches during the season's second half. The team tried giving its goal-line touches to Anthony Dixon, but Dixon was uninspired, to say the least, and Gore mostly reassumed those duties as the season went on. Connect the dots: One way to keep Gore healthy would be to remove him from those short-yardage car crashes, and in theory Jacobs should be up to that task. Provided he's on the roster and used regularly, that would make Jacobs a legit candidate to lead the 49ers in rushing scores next season.

If Gore gets hurt, however, I wouldn't trust Jacobs to assume the starting job. I still think that mantle will belong to Hunter, who I believe is getting a bad rap here. I still view him as Gore's handcuff. But I acknowledge that the acquisition of Jacobs probably removes Hunter from the sleeper list: The only reason to draft him this summer will likely be if you draft Gore first. As for Jacobs, I definitely don't rule out the possibility that he does the cha-cha-cha at the line of scrimmage a few times, earns his new coaches' ire rather quickly and goes gently into that good night. And even if he's a good soldier and successfully plays the part of bull in china shop, I can't see him coming anywhere near his 152 carries from last season. Heck if he gets to 100, I'll be surprised. As such, he's going to be a TD vulture at best, and you probably don't need to draft him outside extremely deep leagues.

As for Gore? Well, this isn't the greatest news. Essentially replacing Dixon with Jacobs should, in theory, supply the Niners with a better in-close TD-maker, and that means it might not be smart to bet Gore winds up with more than the eight TDs he scored in '11. Take away his short-yardage duties and essentially remove him from the passing game? Well, even in a fantasy football season that shapes up as one of the most frustrating ever for RBs, I already didn't consider Gore a top-10 back, and this drives him down to No. 13 on my RB list. It's certainly not a fatal blow -- I mean, after all, this is Brandon Jacobs -- but it's illustrative of the lengths the 49ers will go to keep their money man healthy.

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