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RBs on the rebound: Six rushers poised for big turnaround in 2009

Consider Frank Gore a man of his word. After showing up for the May 1 minicamp overweight, the 49ers' star running back promised his coaches he would drop 10 pounds before the offseason coaching sessions kicked off two weeks later. When he walked through the locker room doors May 18, there was no need to put him on the scale. Gore was noticeably trimmer.

Perhaps it had something to do with him having a weight lifted from his shoulders after getting a look at new coordinator Jimmy Raye's offense during that voluntary minicamp. The system mirrors what San Francisco ran in 2006, when Gore had a breakout season in coordinator Norv Turner's one season with the 49ers.

"It's about the same, a lot of power counters, going at them, don't care what they have in front of us; they just have to stop us," Gore said after a recent OTA workout. "My type of running style is that I like to have my shoulders square. A lot of runs and a lot of the running plays are going straight downhill, just pick your hole and go."

Gore picked a lot of correct holes in 2006, when he set career rushing highs of 1,695 yards, eight touchdowns and 5.4 yards per carry. To put that into perspective, his second-best totals are 1,102 yards (in 2007), six scores (in 2008) and 4.8 yards a carry (in 2005).

Gore is clearly excited about what he has seen and heard from Raye, who worked for Turner for two years in Oakland. The coaches were raised in the same offensive system and speak the same terminology. But will that result in the same type of big season for Gore? The answer here is yes, barring injury.

Gore says the 49ers were more of a finesse offense under coordinator Mike Martz last season. That won't be the case this year, because coach Mike Singletary wants the offense to revolve around a tough, physical running game, which would decrease the pressure on whoever wins the starting job at quarterback.

Gore isn't the only veteran running back likely to enjoy a rebound season. Following is a look at a few others:

• LaDainian Tomlinson. The Chargers' future Hall of Famer had career lows in carries (292) and yards (1,110), and his 11 rushing touchdowns and 52 receptions were one shy of his all-time lows. But look for Tomlinson to bounce back in a big way. He's motivated to quiet critics who believe age 30 is a death sentence -- he'll reach that age June 23 -- and that he's over the hill after carrying the load for eight seasons.

Besides that, Tomlinson should benefit from the return of outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, arguably the league's dominant defensive player and best pass rusher. San Diego struggled to stop opponents over the first half of the season and, consequently, it had to play a lot of catch-up in the fourth quarter. That meant more passes for Philip Rivers -- he ranked eighth in the league with a career-high 141 fourth-quarter attempts -- and fewer rushes for Tomlinson, whose 51 carries were the second-fewest of his career.

Coach Norv Turner undoubtedly would like to reverse those numbers. If the defense is strong, there should be more opportunities to run out the clock, which will mean more carries for Tomlinson, which should mean a big year for the franchise's all-time leading rusher. Injuries slowed Tomlinson early in the season and during the playoffs, but he's healthy now and motivated to show he can still be a dominant force.

• Fred Taylor. The former Jacksonville standout is coming off arguably the worst season of his career, managing only 556 yards in 13 games. Don't look for a second straight subpar season now that he has signed with New England.

The Patriots arguably have the deadliest passing game in the league with Tom Brady back from reconstructive knee surgery. He threw for a league-record 50 touchdowns two years ago and should be even more lethal with the arrival of veteran newcomers Joey Galloway and Chris Baker. Defenses are going to have to play a lot of nickel and dime packages, which should create running lanes for Taylor, who still has breakaway speed despite being 33. He also won't have to shoulder the load alone with Laurence Maroney returning from a season-ending shoulder injury.

It's hard not to look at Taylor and think Corey Dillon, the veteran back who appeared to be on the decline after eight seasons with Cincinnati but ran for 1,635 yards and a Super Bowl victory in his first season with the Patriots.

• Joseph Addai. Few things are more motivational than your team using a first-round draft choice on someone at your position. That's the situation with Indianapolis' Addai, whose rushing totals and games played have declined each of the past two years.

The Colts selected UConn's Donald Brown 27th overall this year, and the tentative plan is to take advantage of each player's abilities, similar to what Indy did with Addai and Dominic Rhodes three years ago en route to a Super Bowl title. But the selection of Brown is also a message to Addai that it's time for him to step up.

• Reggie Bush. The former USC star hasn't lived up to expectations since being taken second overall in 2006 -- could anyone? -- but for the first time in his career he spent the offseason working out in New Orleans and finally seems to be more concerned with making a name for himself as a pro rather than living on his collegiate accomplishments. The Saints have one of the league's top passing games behind Drew Brees, and coach Sean Payton does an excellent job of capitalizing on his players' individual strengths. People close to Bush say he is driven to silence his critics. My hunch is he will.

• Rashard Mendenhall. The Steelers' 2008 first-round pick managed just 19 carries before being placed on injured reserve with a fractured shoulder. With incumbent Willie Parker entering the final year of his contract, Pittsburgh is likely to take a long look at Mendenhall to determine whether he can be a feature back. It's obvious management believes he has the ability, otherwise it would not have selected him 23rd overall. So look for him to have a breakout year.

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