Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE
The diminutive Hunter won't get lost in the 49ers stacked backfield.
Frank Gore, Bruce Miller, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James, Rock Cartwright, Anthony Dixon.
As usual Gore got only a handful of carries in the preseason, but he should be ready to go. Sure, he's 29 now, practically ancient by running back standards, but with the off-season acquisitions the team has made at his position, not to mention the upgrades they've made at receiver, the team has never been more prepared to survive without him should he get dinged up for a game or three.
The guy to be particularly excited about is second-year man Kendall Hunter, who is small but runs decisively and hard. He has moves to be sure but waits until he gets to the second level to display them. Hunter is also a decent receiver and has improves his blocking, which is important since it's hard to play in this backfield if the coaches don't trust you to pick up a blitz.
Brandon Jacobs was signed away from the Giants to be the short-yardage/goal-line back, running behind behemoth starting guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone and he got off to a fine start in the exhibition opener against Minnesota. Jacobs hurt his knee the following week though, and while it's not expected to be a long-term injury, his availability for the opener at Green Bay is in doubt. We may not see Jacobs at 100 percent until October.
LaMichael James was drafted in the second round out of Oregon to be the 49ers answer to Darren Sproles at New Orleans, but he suffered an injury setback of his own at Houston when he sprained his ankle and I think this backfield is a bit too crowded for him to get much work, especially early on in the year.
Where James has been particularly disappointing has been as a return man, where he's been too impatient on kickoffs, returning balls kicked well deep into the end zone, and way too uncomfortable on punts, struggling to get himself squarely underneath the ball.
In the regular offense James has a way to go as far as blocking is concerned and it wouldn't be surprising to see many of his snaps come from the slot as opposed to the backfield. James is adept at running the zone read play, and it's possible that he and Kaepernick could come in as a combo package in games to catch defenses off guard.
Surprisingly, I think Anthony Dixon will make the club out of camp, for the sole reason that Jacobs will be hobbling. Dixon has been a diligent worker this off-season and has finally seemed to gain the maturity and sense of desperation that the coaching staff has been looking for. The notion of a "short-yardage back" is something the coaches seem to favor, so Dixon is the front-runner to be that guy until Jacobs returns to full health.
That being said, I don't believe Dixon is long for this team, despite his new-found professionalism. He's just too one-dimensional as a player. He's not a good receiver. He's not a good blocker, whether it's lead blocking on runs or in picking up blitzes in the passing game. He's played plenty of fullback in the preseason, but has been poor in that role. He's just so-so on special teams.
Contrast that to veteran Rock Cartwright, who is a far more accomplished special teams performer, a better receiver, a better blocker, has more fullback experience and who's nearly Dixon's equal as an explosive runner, and one less likely to dance in the backfield.
I don't think Cartwright is going anywhere, bottom line, and while it won't be a shock to see Dixon make the team, I think his reprieve is temporary.
Bruce Miller has had a quiet preseason, but he's unchallenged as the team's starting fullback.