The San Francisco 49ers have the best problem that a team could possibly have: they have too many good players at one position. There is currently a logjam at the running back position. The 49ers have Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Marcus Lattimore, and Carlos Hyde all longing for touches. The 49ers are unlikely to bring five running backs onto the final 53 man roster, and they are going to have a hard decision to make. Gore, Lattimore, and Hyde seem to be locks for roster. That means Hunter and James are the odd men out.
When thinking about this problem, the obvious answer seems to be keep Hunter and cut James, right? With Hunter’s experience and production as a change of pace back, along with James’ tendency to tweet cryptic messages that point to him being unhappy, Hunter seems to be the logical choice. But it’s not that easy.
Although Hunter has proven to be the more productive runner between the two, James still has a couple advantages over Hunter.
Hunter’s productivity hurts him as much as it helps him. If the 49ers were to get rid of one of these two runners, Hunter would obviously garner more interest in trade talks. The 49ers could probably get a better haul for Hunter than they ever would with James.
This is also the final year of Hunter’s contract and it seems like Hunter will want to explore his objections elsewhere. He could probably get more money and playing time on another team than he would with the 49ers especially with the recent drafting of Lattimore and Hyde. If Hunter is going to leave, it would make more sense to trade him and get something for him.
James has two years left on his contract. It would seem foolish to cut a former second round pick two years before his contract ends, but then again the 49ers are not afraid to cut their losses (e.g. A.J. Jenkins).
The main advantage that James has over Hunter is that James doubles as a return man. With James, the 49ers get more than just a change of pace back that gets just a few carries per game. They also get both a punt and kick returner. However, rookie Bruce Ellington could take away this advantage from James if Ellington excels at returning during camp.
There’s no question that Hunter is a better runner than James, but unfortunately for Hunter there are a lot more factors than just running. With the corps that the 49ers have, they can’t really go wrong with either choice. Regardless, it will be a tough decision.