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Don’t Waste A First-Round Pick On Frank Gore

Ever since offensive coordinator Mike Martz arrived in San Francisco to try to breathe some desperately needed life into the anemic 49ers offense with the multifaceted, pass-heavy “Greatest Show on Turf” scheme that he had made synonymous with the St. Louis Rams between 1999 and 2005, and tried to re-create with the Detroit Lions between 2006 and 2007, many fantasy owners and fantasy pundits alike have predicted that San Francisco running back Frank Gore will produce Marshall Faulk numbers this season. What are Faulk numbers? In 2001, which marked the last year that the former Rams star played close to a full regular-season schedule without regularly sharing touches, Faulk rushed for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns, and caught 83 passes for 765 yards and nine touchdowns. Why the Gore/Faulk comparisons? Martz has repeatedly promised to make Gore the centerpiece of the San Francisco attack as both a runner and a receiver like Faulk was when he rose to unparalleled fantasy football stardom years ago.

 

The Gore/Martz pairing is a fantasy owner’s dream, right? Many fondly recall Gore’s 2006 breakout season – it was his first year as the team’s unquestioned No. 1 runner – and believe the third-year pro can easily post monster numbers again in Martz’s system. During 2006, Gore carried 313 times for 1,695 yards (5.4 yards per carry), scored eight rushing touchdowns, caught 61 passes for 485 yards and scored one receiving touchdown. However, the expectations for the 25-year-old Gore to post Faulk-esque numbers and for the San Francisco offense to bounce back this year are extremely unrealistic. Because of serious concerns about the 49ers’ offensive talent and major questions about Martz’s credibility, you should not choose Gore as your No. 1 fantasy running back this year.

 

Is Gore’s Talent In Question?

 

No, it isn’t – Gore’s 2006 numbers are obvious proof of his ability. When healthy, Gore is a smart, low-to-the-ground battering ram who usually picks up positive yardage each time he touches the ball. Despite Gore’s somewhat smallish 5-foot-9, 223-pound frame, he can run with power between the tackles and has the necessary speed to turn the corner. Respected for his tireless work ethic, Gore is also a very capable receiver; he has led the 49ers in receptions two straight seasons. Although the University of Miami (Fla.) product has struggled with injuries throughout his pro career, Gore has missed just one start in the last two years and played with a nagging high ankle injury during the latter part of 2007. The biggest criticism of Gore’s game: he does not seem to have a nose for the end zone. Gore scored just nine total touchdowns in 2006 (eight rushing and one receiving) and just six total touchdowns in 2007 (five rushing and one receiving).

 

Why Did Gore Disappoint Last Season?

 

Putting aside his 2006 success for the sake of discussion, Gore is a talented player who is trapped in an offense that clearly lacks proven talent.

The 49ers offensive unit rarely found a consistent rhythm due to poor line play, an ineffective passing attack and sub-par coaching/play-calling. As you probably guessed, this is why enemy defenses comfortably stacked seven and sometimes eight men near the line of scrimmage, successfully containing Gore more times than not.

Gore’s fantasy owners were undoubtedly frustrated with his less-than-stellar, albeit respectable 2007 season statistics. In 15 starts, he amassed just 260 rushes for 1,102 yards and five rushing touchdowns. His receiving numbers, however, were solid – 53 catches for 436 yards and one touchdown. Even though the 49ers offense struggled mightily, Gore still managed to average 102 rushing yards, five receptions and 39 receiving yards per outing during the second half of the season, but he notched an unsatisfying three total touchdowns in that time frame. By the way, Gore finished 2007 ranked in the top-10 in overall fantasy points in leagues with point-per-reception scoring.

 

The San Francisco offensive line had showed so much promise in 2006, but this unit regressed significantly in 2007, looking downright pitiful at times. The run-blocking was actually respectable overall. Gore averaged 4.2 yards per carry, and the 49ers averaged 4.1 yards per rush as a team. However, 92.3 rushing yards amassed per game (ranked No. 27) as a team is obviously a disappointing statistic – especially when you consider Gore’s success on the ground in 2006. On the other hand, pass protection was a major problem. The line yielded a whopping 55 sacks, which tied the league-worst mark, making it next to impossible at times for the three different starting quarterbacks that the club had used to direct a consistent, effective passing attack that could spread the field and keep opposing defenses from focusing solely on Gore.

 

Heading into early August, it’s not clear whether aging veteran free-agent left guard Larry Allen will return. His presence would provide a much-needed boost to a reshuffled offensive line that is full of question marks. After playing the entire 2007 season at right tackle, tackle Joe Staley, a second-year pro and the club’s most consistent offensive lineman, will start on the left side. Assuming Allen does not return, fourth-year guard Adam Snyder and rookie second-round pick Chilo Rachal are expected to battle for the starting left guard position. Center Eric Heitmann, a seven-year veteran, will start again this year, even though he occasionally struggles in pass protection. Guard David Baas (pectoral) and Rachal are candidates to start at right guard. Finally, tackle Jonas Jennings moves to the right side after struggling on the left side in 2007.

 

Looking at San Francisco’s passing game, the regression of quarterback Alex Smith was nothing short of astonishing. Following his very respectable and promising 2006 showing, Smith looked like he was ready to emerge as a solid starter in 2007 – despite having to learn his fourth offensive scheme in four pro seasons. Smith, however, got off to a rough start, throwing just one touchdown pass in his first four starts before suffering a separated shoulder. To his credit, Smith tried to play through the injury before undergoing surgery in December 2007. On the season, Smith (2-5 as a starter last year) completed just 48.7 percent of his passes for 914 yards with just two touchdowns and four interceptions. Former backup quarterback Trent Dilfer (retired; 1-6 as a starter last year) was not the 49ers’ savior at the position, even though he led the team in passing with 1,166 yards, seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Backup quarterback Shaun Hill (2-0 as a starter last year), who will battle Smith for the starting job, showed some flashes of competence late last season, throwing for 501 yards, five touchdowns and one interception in three starts.

 

 

The team did not have any big-play wide receivers who could stretch the field, help out the quarterbacks and draw defensive attention away from Gore. His 53 catches, as mentioned, led the 49ers last year, while tight end Vernon Davis, who still has not lived up to his lofty draft-day potential, hauled in 52 balls for 509 yards and four touchdowns. Wide receiver Arnaz Battle was tops among all San Francisco wideouts with 50 receptions for 600 yards and five touchdowns.

 

It’s a no-brainer that former offensive coordinator Norv Turner (head coach – San Diego Chargers), who directed the San Francisco offense during Gore’s breakout 2006 season, was sorely missed. Offensive coordinator Jim Hostler, who had replaced Turner in 2007, does deserve a good share of the blame for the team’s offensive ineptitude and Gore’s struggles. Hostler, as you probably know, was fired just after the season wrapped up. He had inherited essentially the same players and playbook that Turner had used but didn’t achieve the same results:

 

SAN FRANCISCO OFFENSE (Table 1)

YEAR

TOTAL OFF.

RUSHING

PASSING

SACKS

SCORING

2006

No. 26 (303.8)

No. 6 (135.8)

No. 29 (168.0)

No. 21 (2.2)

No. 24 (18.6)

2007

No. 32 (237.3)

No. 27 (92.3)

No. 32 (145.0)

No. 32 (3.4)

No. 32 (13.7)

 TABLE 1 – The numbers in parentheses are per game averages.

 

Hostler’s play-calling was considered quite bland and predictable. San Francisco fans had complained that Hostler only seemed to like calling running plays that were either dives or delayed draws. His two biggest failures: Hostler was absolutely incapable of continuing the development of quarterback Alex Smith and the offensive line. Hostler’s background includes stints in the NFL as an offensive quality control coach, an assistant wide receivers coach and a quarterbacks coach. He had no previous experience as a play-caller or offensive coordinator.

 

Offseason Changes That Impact Gore

 

In addition to reshuffling the offensive line, the 49ers upgraded at wide receiver, acquiring wideouts Bryant Johnson from the Arizona Cardinals and Isaac Bruce from the St. Louis Rams through free agency. The 6-foot-3, 216-pound Johnson was just the No. 3 wideout in Arizona during his recent years there, but the six-year pro does bring some big-play ability to the starting lineup. Johnson, however, did not shine when given an opportunity to start during his stint with the Cardinals. During the last four years, he started 16 games as an injury replacement, amassing just 58 receptions for 660 yards and five touchdowns. As for the 35-year-old Bruce, he still has good hands but no longer possesses his trademark speed and explosiveness that made him nearly unstoppable in his prime. The 6-foot-0, 188-pound Bruce, however, obviously knows Martz’s offense and should provide valuable leadership in the wide receiver corps. Wide receiver Darrell Jackson left via free agency, which leaves the steady, but not spectacular Arnaz Battle to fill the No. 3 wideout role – at least for now. The team also signed running back DeShaun Foster from the Carolina Panthers. Foster will likely steal some third-down touches from Gore. Martz has said he also plans to give a handful of regular touches each game to backup running back Michael Robinson (knee surgery – expected back for the regular season).

 

Is Mike Martz Still An Offensive Genius?

 

As discussed, Martz built his reputation as an offensive guru while leading the original “Greatest Show on Turf” with the Rams as the offensive coordinator during 1999 and as the head coach from 2000 to 2005. The complex offense relies on spreading the field with three, four or even five wideouts with just a quarterback and a single halfback usually in the backfield. All five offensive linemen handle the blocking with rare help from the tight end and running back positions. The scheme is essentially a clone of the pass-heavy attack made famous in the early 1980s by then-San Diego Chargers head coach Don Coryell. The scheme was then appropriately nicknamed “Air Coryell.”

 

There is no denying Martz’s success with his system in St. Louis. During five of the six seasons that he prowled the Rams sideline as their head coach, the team ranked in the top-10 in total offense, passing offense and scoring. There is, however, one major point that has been overlooked by fantasy owners and fantasy pundits alike: it took a rare collection of talent to execute that scheme successfully. Quarterbacks Kurt Warner and later Marc Bulger had to make quick decisions, get the ball out quickly and take a lot of hits in the pocket. Warner and Bulger also had to throw deep passes with velocity and display pinpoint accuracy on short routes. Running back Marshall Faulk was an explosive runner who could gain yards up the middle and turn the corner with ease. Faulk was also an outstanding receiver out of the backfield. Wide receivers, such as Torry Holt, Issac Bruce, Az-Zahir Hakim, Shaun McDonald and others stretched the field with blazing speed and made tough catches underneath while running perfect routes play after play. Don’t forget – the offense heavily relied on five O-linemen who were above-average blockers.

 

Martz had spent 2006 and 2007 trying to resurrect “The Greatest Show on Turf” with the Detroit Lions, but he enjoyed just limited success. Detroit finished in the top-10 in passing both seasons, which fantasy owners obviously appreciated. However, there were many negatives. The Lions finished in the bottom of the league in total offense, rushing, turnovers allowed and sacks allowed during both seasons. Of particular concern to fantasy owners who are thinking about drafting Gore: Detroit set a record for fewest rushing attempts in back-to-back seasons during Martz’s tenure. In defense of Martz, running back Kevin Jones (Chicago Bears) was in and out of the lineup with injuries, and Jones’ replacements left much to be desired. Detroit’s offensive lines also were shaky, mediocre-at-best units. In addition, the team was usually trailing in games and had to throw frequently. Overall, the Lions clearly lacked the necessary talent to execute Martz’s offense with the same degree of success that St. Louis did.

 

On paper, do the 49ers have the requisite talent to successfully run Martz’s offense? The answer is clearly “no.” Gore is talented, but he and Faulk are not the same caliber of running back. We’ve already discussed San Francisco’s offensive starters, and it’s not necessary to insult your intelligence by comparing San Francisco’s current quarterbacks, wide receivers and offensive linemen to the ones that Martz had in St. Louis or Detroit.

 

Gore’s 2008 Fantasy Forecast

 

The negatives strongly outweigh the positives for Gore – although it’s fair to say a lot of the problems are not his fault and beyond his control. The 49ers will try to save some mileage on the injury-prone Gore by giving a small number of touches to Foster and Robinson each game. It takes a minimum of eight games for players to become comfortable in a new offensive scheme. Despite the complexity of Martz’s system, the Lions offense was productive during his first season on the job, but Detroit had some bona fide weapons in the passing game – wide receivers Roy Williams, Calvin Johnson and Shaun McDonald, and quarterback Jon Kitna (stop laughing – he is actually a solid passer), just to name a few – unlike the 49ers. As for the San Francisco wide receiver corps, it looks painfully average at best. Johnson is an unknown commodity as a starter, Bruce’s best days are behind him and Battle looks like nothing more than a backup possession wideout. The quarterback situation is up in the air, with the unproven Smith and the unproven Hill battling it out in training camp for the starting gig. There are major concerns about either quarterback being able to generate a passing game that is effective enough to stretch the field and keep opposing defenses from loading up to stop Gore. The revamped offensive line is full of uncertainty and rates as below-average. In Martz’s scheme, the demands on the O-linemen, as discussed, are enormous. In addition, Gore will face 10 run defenses that finished in the top-13 last season. San Francisco’s non-NFC West opponents are from the competitive NFC East and the AFC North divisions this year.

 

As San Francisco’s top runner, Gore will receive a majority of the carries, and he is expected to figure prominently in the passing game – at least that is what we have been told. Martz, as mentioned, has spent the offseason vehemently promising to make Gore the focal point of the offense. It should be pointed out, however, that Martz made the same guarantees about running backs Kevin Jones and Tatum Bell in Detroit and didn’t keep his word. Do you trust Martz to honor his promise to give Gore as many touches as possible each week? Martz couldn’t or wouldn’t build a productive running game in Detroit. Do you think he will do it in San Francisco? It’s not hard to imagine Gore receiving as few as eight carries in a game with Martz calling the shots. Martz’s offenses in Detroit committed tons of turnovers and allowed a lot of sacks. Do you think his 49ers offense, which has arguably less talent than the Detroit offense does, will do any better at minimizing mistakes?

 

Fantasy owners have selected Gore in the middle of the first round (somewhere between picks No. 6 and No. 8) in most mock drafts to date. With so many things working against Gore, it is extremely unlikely that he will amass Faulk numbers. Defenders of Gore are quick to point out that he was one of the top-10 most productive running backs in point-per-reception scoring formats last year. However, this is a new year with a new offense and a new offensive coordinator. Gore would make a safer choice as a No. 2 fantasy running back this year, but the odds are stacked against him sliding into the second round in most re-draft league formats. Bottom line – Gore is way too risky to select in the first round. However, if you decide to roll the dice with Gore as your No. 1 back, expect numbers in the neighborhood of 1,150 rushing yards, seven rushing touchdowns, 50 catches, 500 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns.

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