- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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This milestone accomplishment needs to be celebrated in San Francisco. There are no guarantees Gore will be in a 49ers’ uniform next season. If not, he has already has staked his claim as one of the best skill-position players in the team’s rich offensive history.
In today’s NFL running backs rarely make it to their 10th season, especially with one team. But Gore is not your typical running back. At a time when the running back is being devalued in many systems, the 49ers still rely heavily on the run game. In fact, they are one of the few teams that are still a run-first offense.
But that doesn’t mean Gore will be around for the long haul. Looking at the cold facts, there are some signs that Gore could be entering his final season with the 49ers.
He is 31, which is ancient for a running back, and entering the final season of his contract. The 49ers clearly are looking toward the future at the position. They took the injured but talented Marcus Lattimore in the fourth round of last year’s draft. They selected a falling Carlos Hyde -- the Ohio State product widely considered the best running back available in the draft -- with the No. 57 overall pick in May. While Lattimore will be eased back to health, Hyde, who looked terrific in the offseason, has a chance to get carries right away.
It’s only natural for the 49ers to think about the future. Of course, that doesn’t mean Gore’s future is dead with the 49ers.
They clearly are interested in Gore being a key member of the team in 2014. The 49ers are scheduled to pay him $6.4 million this season. They could have asked Gore to take a pay cut. They didn’t. Teams don’t give away that kind of money to players in today's salary cap-dominated NFL. Gore is being paid well because the 49ers have plans for him.
And if you listen to 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh -- an unabashed Gore follower -- this season might not necessarily be the end of the line for Gore in San Francisco. When asked last month if he talked to Gore about his future plans, Harbaugh said: “You know how I feel about it. I feel like Frank is still at the top of his game. I have even made the comment very clearly, that I think he has three great years of football left in him. That’s his mindset as well.”
In keeping with his low-prolife approach, Gore has been mostly quiet this offseason. The 49ers have kept him out of most of the offseason, but that's not a signal they don't plan on featuring him. It’s all about saving one of their best veteran players. Also, the 49ers know they can count on Gore. There’s no doubting that.
“People always ask me (if Gore surprises him). There’s nothing Frank does that surprises me,” San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke said this offseason. “I’ve never met an individual -- a player, a coach, anybody -- that’s been around the game of football that is as passionate about the game as Frank Gore. That’s what drives him. So nothing he does surprises us.”
Look for Gore in Year 10 to still be the guy the 49ers look for in the clutch, the guy who seems to punch through the hole when the 49ers need it most. But I can also see Gore's load being reduced, even if its done subtly.
Think of what the Broncos did with Knowshon Moreno last year. He had the first 1,000-yard rushing campaign of his career, but by the end of the season, Denver was consistently working in second-year back Montee Ball. Now, Moreno is with the Dolphins and Ball is the starter in the Broncos' backfield.
Gore, like Moreno, didn’t show signs of slowing down at the age of 30 last season. He had 276 carries, third most in his career. If Hyde and Lattimore are factors this season (and the 49ers can utilize their new receiving weapons), perhaps Gore’s load will drop to the 200-carry range.
He can still be effective. He’s Frank Gore. He’s always effective.
“Frank is the best, it’s that simple,” Lattimore said. “He is so good at so many different things, and that will not change. Of course, I want to be a factor, but Frank is always going to be a factor as long as he is here. He’s Frank.”
Frank Gore will report for his 10th training camp with the San Francisco 49ers this week.This milestone accomplishment needs to be celebrated in San Francisco.