As we delve deeper into training camp and move closer to the much-anticipated first week of NFL football, we here at Golden Gate Sports continue with our preseason positional breakdown of the San Francisco 49ers by addressing the running backs.
Coming into training camp, the 49ers easily boasted the deepest corps of running backs in the league. With Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde, LaMichael James, Marcus Lattimore vying for snaps at tailback and Bruce Miller and Will Tukuafu competing at fullback, the Niners were one of the few teams in the NFL to claim they had too many running backs.
However, two practices into training camp, Hunter, the leading candidate to be Gore’s top backup this season, tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in his knee and will likely miss the entire season.
A few days later, James too was injured during a blitz pickup drill. He dislocated his elbow and will be out for the next month. While James is likely to return before the regular season opener, the Niners were hoping he could take snaps during the preseason and prove himself worthy of the backup tailback job.
The 49ers signed former Arizona Cardinals’ running back Alfonso Smith to fill Hunter’s and James’ spots, but their tailback depth is suddenly very thin. Hyde, the team’s second round draft selection from April, is expected to assume the role of number two on the depth chart. Hyde has reportedly been running well in practice. He possesses good downhill power as well as speed and vision outside the tackles.
The biggest test for Hyde will be how well he handles pass blocking responsibilities and how good his receiving skills are. As the number two running back, he will likely come in for Gore on third and fourth downs, both of which are passing downs. If he struggles picking up blitzes from the inside or if he can’t be relied on as a receiving option, Hyde will become a liability on later downs.
The Niners will likely try to keep Gore’s carries as close to zero as possible throughout the preseason, which means Hyde will get every opportunity to prove himself. Along with Hyde, Harbaugh will likely give playing time to Jewel Hampton and the newly signed Smith. Hampton, an undrafted rookie, has plenty of talent; unfortunately, he has been stuck at the tail-end of the deepest crop of tailbacks in the league.
Smith has gotten some decent run with the Cardinals in his career. He will likely get opportunities to showcase his abilities as a running back in the preseason, but in reality, his value comes as a stopgap for James. He has special teams experience, but the 49ers have acquired plenty of players in the last year who are solely special team contributors.
At fullback, things are far less convoluted. Miller is entrenched as the team’s starting fullback after fully recovering from his shoulder injury from last season. Having just been given a long-term extension, Miller will continue to make his case as the best all-around fullback in football.
Tukuafu’s roster spot looks tenuous at best. The 49ers do not have much of a need for a second fullback on the roster, considering the competition everywhere else. Tukuafu has experience playing along the defensive line, but that is also a position of strength for the Niners. If Miller is forced to miss time, the 49ers will likely take their chance on the free agent market.
The wild card in the battle for positioning along the depth chart at tailback is Lattimore. The talented halfback has yet to practice, as he remains on the Non-Football Injury List due to knee surgery and an offseason hamstring strain.
Despite all of the Niners’ injury woes at tailback, it may look like Lattimore does not have a place on the field. But if his college game film is any indication of the player he can be, he may be well worth the wait. Don’t be surprised if he finds his way onto the field someway or another.
As of now, Gore is the unquestioned lead dog in the backfield. He remains the lifeblood of the 49ers’ patented power running game attack. Behind him, it appears Hyde is primed to be his top backup on third downs.
With his explosive potential, the Niners will find ways to get James involved in the offense. It should be clarified that it will not be in the form of the screen game. Many have clamored for more screen plays to be added to the playbook, but it isn’t practical with Kaepernick at quarterback. Because of his potential as a running threat, defenses are not anxious to rush upfield, which is a necessity for screen passes to work.
All in all, even with Hunter’s season-ending injury, the 49ers are rich in talent at running back. With so many talented youngsters waiting in the wings behind Gore, it will give the team the opportunity to rest him for the postseason. The Niner backfield appears to be set for 2014 and beyond.