Saturday, December 17, 2005

Kevan Barlow: Reality Is This Way, Dude
By Blogger

Something I didn't know: Reggie Bush and Alex Smith played together in high school. Unfortunately for me, all that means is that the Niners will be more interested in getting Bush for their backfield. There are reasonable arguments in favor of the Niners drafting the Heisman winner, and there are reasonable arguments against it. If you want to know, however, you should ask Kevan Barlow what he thinks. Barlow knows the truth, and the truth is-- well-- um-- the truth is that he's-- gulp-- he's the future of the franchise. Mr. Barlow, here's your rope, aaaaaaand... SCENE!
"I feel like this is my running back show. This is my offensive line, and that's how I look at it. I feel like I'm one good running back myself. I don't need to pat myself on the back or nothing, but I'm worrying about being one of the elite... Right now, I'm not worried about Reggie at all... I'm just worried about getting myself ready, because I feel like I'm an elite guy in this league as well..."

Although this exercise is somewhat Fish/Barrel, let's not jump to conclusions. Let's look at the numbers, shall we? I'll remove names for a moment. The numbers are carries, total rushing yards, yards per carry, and, just for fun, touchdowns, gleaned from

RB 1: 262/1103/4.2/2
RB 2: 250/1077/4.3/7
RB 3: 127/749/5.9/5
RB 4: 176/581/3.3/3
RB 5: 73/353/4.8/1

To go all Sesame Street on you, one of these things is not like the other. None of the running backs are "elite"; every single one of them is considered at least somewhat expendable by their teams.

RB 1 is Reuben Droughns. His are the numbers of a team's number one running back whose coach keeps giving him the ball. He's responded with consistent, if unspectacular, running. He's more than serviceable, but is not an explosive playmaker in the way that a healthy Lee Suggs is.

RB 2 is Thomas Jones, the Cardinals castoff and stopgap before Cedric Benson gets his act together in Chicago. (The Drew Brees comparisons may begin soon enough.) Again, Jones's surface numbers indicate a solid if unspectacular runner whose coach calls a lot of handoffs. It's no surprise that the Browns' and Bears' quarterbacks are similarly mediocre to below-average.

RB 3 is Tatum Bell. His average yards per carry is fantastic, fueled by a lightning and thunder relationship with Mike Anderson, and in 49 fewer carries than RB 4, he has 168 more yards. Yes, he plays for Denver and has the luxury of sharing carries with Anderson, but the disparity between his numbers and RB 4's has to be attributable to more than just team context.

Which brings us to RB 4, who, as you have probably guessed, is Kevan Barlow. How does a guy do so poorly when his team is desperately trying to inflate his stats in order to increase his trade value, even at the expense of giving playing time to others? Subjectively, the man appears to loathe contact, tiptoeing and dancing when he should be plowing ahead. Call it Ron Dayne-itis. The result is an Eddie George-esque 3.3 yards per carry (the old and worn down Eddie George). You might be thinking the 49ers are such a terrible team that those 3.3 yards are downright heroic.

Actually, on a subjective level, which is all we have since there aren't yet any reliable numbers for lineman performance, the Niners' interior linemen, when healthy, are pretty good. Jeremy Newberry at center, Eric Heitmann at guard, and Justin Smiley at the other guard provide a legitimate core, while David Baas looks to be a dependable guard perhaps as early as next season. If Newberry retires, Baas will play guard with Heitmann moving to center. The problem is with the tackles, where Jonas Jennings has been injured all season, and Kwame Harris has, to put it mildly, struggled in every facet of his game. He's played well for an entire contest only once, against Tampa Bay. Adam Snyder profiles much the same way as Baas, except at tackle. So, since Barlow is a big guy with less than stellar speed and agility, one would think that he would do well running between the tackles. Unfortunately, he doesn't want to run inside; he wants to run outside and cut back a la Clinton Portis circa 2003. His body simply isn't made for that type of running, though.

A back with that body type and those skills is RB 5, Frank Gore. Plucked up with the first pick of the third round in this year's draft, Gore's college resume is the stuff of unrealized potential. As a true freshman, he passed McGahee on the depth chart and was penciled in as Miami's starting tailback his sophomore year until he suffered a devastating knee injury in spring practice and missed the entire season. The next year, he came back only to suffer another season-ending knee injury. Finally, last season, Gore came back with two reconstructed knees to rush for 945 yards with a 4.8 yards per carry average. Seem familiar? Yup, he's rushing for 4.8 yards per carry in his rookie season in the pros, with subpar tackles blocking on the edges and no passing game to speak of.

Kevan Barlow may believe the Niners have no need for Reggie Bush and that Barlow himself is the future at tailback. He's only half right. With Jonas Jennings's return, perhaps D'Brickashaw Ferguson at the other tackle, and Eric Johnson returning to provide a great short yardage passing option for Alex Smith, the Niners' offense could have three major upgrades on offense next season, not to mention any improvement from Smith will constitute an upgrade over the QB carousel employed this season. If Barlow departs and Gore takes the full time job, you can make that four major upgrades. With a good cap situation the legacy of the past several years' financial restraint, the team could make free agent acquisitions to drastically improve the defense.

Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me they should take Bush if given the chance and go with the delightful surname tandem of Bush-Gore in the backfield and take their chances on linemen later in the draft. Tell me it's a better strategy this season to get the best available player, who happens to play at a position that could legitimately be spoken for, than to stock up on players at other positions. Go ahead. Try.


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