It's Tuesday, the dust has settled on opening weekend, and everyone is rightfully chattering about Frank Gore. He's flying up "who to start" rankings, being bargained for in leagues everyone, and prompting fantasy owners to rush out and pick up brand new Number 21 Niners jerseys. Okay, maybe not that last part.
Of course, this sort of thing always happens after the first week. Players put up big numbers, become overrated, and then come back to earth. And fantasy owners - thirsty for tangible evidence upon which to base their decisions - read way too much into the initial batch of numbers and inevitably overreact. Is that happening here? Or are we seeing the emergence of a fantasy monster?
There is no denying that Gore had a monster first game, racking up 170 total yards and two scores. So what to make of it? Is he the next Shaun Alexander (1,318 yards and 16 touchdowns for a mediocre Seattle team in his first full season in 2001) or the next Quentin Griffin (156 yards and 3 scores in his first start of 2004, only to finish with 311 yards and those same 3 touchdowns for the season)?
After watching the Niners-Cards game from Sunday, I was struck by how solid Gore was in every facet of the game. He finishes his runs, never seems to lose yardage by making the wrong cut or dancing at the line of scrimmage, powers through holes in short yardage situations, and catches the ball extremely well out of the backfield. It is that last trait that really reminds of me of LaDainian Tomlinson, who I think is probably a good player to use as a reference point when analyzing Gore.
In 2001, LaDainian's first in the NFL, he was an immediate starter for a 5-11 Chargers team. His inexperience and the lack of talent surrounding him that year is very similar to Gore's situation this season. And like Gore, LT came right out and proved himself to be a powerful runner with great instincts, balance, power, and hands. Therefore, despite the fact that he was a rookie and often facing eight-man fronts (thanks to Doug Flutie's noodle arm), Tomlinson was still able to have success, even against good teams and even when San Diego faced substantial deficits. For the year he was ninth in the NFL in rushing with 1,236 yards and seventh in rushing touchdowns with 10.
Now, I'm not saying that Gore is as talented as Tomlinson or that he will automatically achieve those totals, but it is a good place to start when trying to gauge Gore's numbers, given the similarity in their circumstances and skill sets.
In Tomlinson's first game that year, the Chargers manhandled the Redskins as LT totaled 125 yards and two touchdowns, good for 24 fantasy points. This is similar to the output we saw from Gore in Week One; his team was competitive and he amassed 26 fantasy points. However, as the season wore on for Tomlinson, the big games tailed off. He totaled over 20 fantasy points on only one other occasion and in the other 14 contests he scored over 10 points in half and under 10 in the other half. For the season, he average just under 13 fantasy points per contest and finished the year as the #7 running back and #11 player overall (in traditional scoring systems).
Again, while Gore is probably not the talent that Tomlinson is, I think he can match those fantasy numbers. Why? Because there is one element to his game and to San Francisco's play-calling that is superior to LT's in 2001, and that is the use of Gore as a receiver out of the backfield. In his rookie campaign, Tomlinson caught 59 passes for 367 yards and zero scores, which is okay, but nothing compared to what he did the next time the Chargers found themselves playing from behind game in and game out. In 2003, while breaking in Drew Brees at quarterback and losing 12 of 16 games, San Diego made great use of Tomlinson as a receiver; LT caught 100 passes for 725 yards and four touchdowns. Given Gore's six-catch, 83-yard performance in the opener, it seems that he can put up receiving numbers that fall somewhere between LT's rookie totals and those from his ridiculous third season.
Therefore, even if Gore falls short of LT's 1,236 rushing yards and comes in with something more like 1,050 or 1,100, it seems he can make up for it in the passing game. Not only will this keep him involved when the Niners trail, but it will also allow him to get touches without being at as great of a risk for injury.
That brings us to the final - and biggest - question about Gore. Can he stay healthy? It is the one aspect of this young running back that splinters off completely from the Tomlinson comparison. Last time I checked, LT didn't suffer multiple ACL tears in college or need a pair of shoulder surgeries the offseason before he became an NFL starter.
If Frank Gore can answer that last question and stay healthy for at least 15 of the Niners' 16 contests, I think he can match LT's first year as a starter and rank as one of the 10 best backs in the league, with numbers settling in somewhere around 1,600 total yards and 10-12 scores. (By the way, LaMont Jordan finished with 1,588 yards and 11 touchdowns last year in his first year as a starter on a 4-12 team, which is also not a bad comparison.)
Anyone else see bigger things for Gore? Anyone envisioning complete and utter failure?
Posted by Adam Hoff at 9/12/2006 7:09:00 PM