With a copious amount of talent, projecting a 53-man roster for the San Francisco 49ers is puzzling. In the span of any NFL offseason, one of the recurring storylines is the exiting of players and the arrival of a new wave.
Every team experiences roster changeover, solved more often than not in intense training camp battles. There are routinely surprises so one or two departures should be expected per year.
The influx of gifted footballers brought in during the Jim Harbaugh era has ultimately made players from the old regime expendable. As this team continues to forge ahead, running back Anthony Dixon once again finds that his job is on the line.
The sheer volume of San Francisco’s roster puts the team in a unique position.
As we’ve seen in the past two offseasons, the 49ers do not need starters. They are, however, in the market for talented players that have the ceiling to grow into potential NFL stars.
There are contracted players with more upside than Dixon even among the recent UDFA signings. This year, the talent-laden 49ers added a few project players with immense upside.
With their physical dimensions, Lawrence Okoye and Luke Marquardt are two athletes this team will want to hang on to.The capacity they bring to the game of football may be too grand to risk by relegating one or both of them to the practice squad. If the Niners place Okoye or Marquardt on anything but the final 53, the players become susceptible to being lifted by another team.
Okoye, 21, is a 6’6”, 308-pound Olympian that runs a 4.78 (h/t ESPN).
He is raw, has no bad habits (because he has zero experience) and brings unfathomable upside to the table. At first glance, he can play fullback or tight end, but he also has the potential to emerge as a powering defensive lineman.
Again, with the rare physical ability and decorated background, Okoye is almost immediately more valuable than Dixon.
Marquardt, on the other hand, has experience but is another value pickup on San Francisco’s behalf. Hailing from Azusa Pacific, this 6’9”, 315-pound offensive tackle should have been drafted but slipped due to injury (h/t NFL Draft Scout).
As a big, tall imposing lineman, Marquardt will be Alex Boone’s clone in training camp, fulfilling the duties he left behind as the primary backup tackle. It is a position at which the 49ers desperately require depth.
The former Cougar has an opportunity to develop at the tackle spot, similar to Daniel Kilgore’s understudy role as an interior lineman.
Nnamdi Asomugha (CB), Marcus Lattimore (RB) and Ricardo Lockette (WR) are three more luxury players with more upside than Dixon. If the 49ers want to carry an extra player at any of these three positions, it could cost the four-year pro his slot.
Moreover, via the draft and free agency, the 49ers brought in what could be a new corps of special teams players. Marcus Cooper, Kevin Moody, Craig Dahl or a better special teamer may be retained in favor of Dixon.
So, this is where he really needs to up his game.
In the past, Dixon retained a roster spot because of his ability to fire up his teammates and contribute on special teams. The Niners clearly addressed the S/T unit in the offseason, which immediately endangers No. 24.
Overall, looking at the incoming talent across the roster, there is a chance Dixon is eclipsed in a BPA (best player available) situation.
Anthony Dixon’s Role
At his core, Dixon is a bona fide utility player.
He is a dream for a coach and a great addition to any roster because he will do anything he is asked, while putting a tremendous effort forward in the process. He is totally selfless, reveres his teammates and contributes in several facets.
For this reason, spending one roster spot on a high-character player that executes at fullback, running back and special teams can be viewed as valuable. And for a team that relies on energy and momentum, Dixon has brought great value as a hype man and locker room presence.
Unfortunately, on the field, his game lacks any sort of unique dimension.
His role has decreased since his arrival in 2010, with fewer rushing attempts in each of his three years in the league. He makes his money as a special teams gunner and a fourth-quarter relief back.
If the 49ers put the game away, the coaches can take Frank Gore off the field and let Dixon chip away as time winds down. This gives the young running back reps at his drafted position while steadily extending Gore’s shelf life.
San Francisco attempted to turn Dixon into a short-yardage back in 2012, but he is not remarkably powerful. He is a tough runner that puts forth an effort but does not hammer opposing front sevens with overbearing size and strength.
Over his career, he only averages 3.4 yards per carry, which is a full yard less than any tailback currently on the roster (via Pro Football Reference).
When it comes to callings in the backfield, Bruce Miller can rightfully assume that role and become that Tom Rathman type of grinder. This might be a more effective approach by the San Francisco offense in the immediate future.
A Full-House Backfield in San Francisco
In 2012, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, Frank Gore, had his finest season on the ground in six years. On the way to a Super Bowl, the 29-year-old tailback from Miami racked up 1,214 yards rushing and nine scores.
He has been the driving force behind this evolving attack-by-committee, which features several runners, including the quarterback.
In a highly competitive division which is notoriously stout against the run, the 49ers still manage to field a top-five ranked attack. Heading into the coming season, the team will finally feature Gore complemented by a one-two punch of Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James.
This offseason, GM Trent Baalke addressed the state of the RB corps (h/t Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area):
I'm a big believer -- we are big believers -- in a three-headed approach. In other words, having a group of backs that bring to the table something a little bit different than the other one so you can do a lot of different things. But also having those backs be able to do enough things the same so you don't become so predictable on game day.
This season, the lightning-quick tandem of Hunter and James will start seeing a lot of reps behind No. 21. It will be a full-fledged three-headed attack, as Baalke states, which may keep Dixon on the sideline.
Each rusher is fully capable of 20 carries a game, whereby a fourth active back might not be necessary. Of course, depending on the game plan, it would be unlikely to see any of the relief backs get more than 10 to 15 carries each.
Regardless, this simply proves that without injury, the 49ers have zero need for a fourth tailback. Their first three are too dynamic to take carries away from, especially if they are healthy and the game is still at stake.
Then there is the add-on of South Carolina’s All-American running back, Marcus Lattimore, who is a lock to be retained until 2014 and beyond. With his addition, the 49ers now have four backs that cannot be cut.
Not to mention, Jewel Hampton will be returning from the PUP to compete in camp.
When Anthony Dixon first arrived in 2010, there was room for him. He received 70 carries as a rookie under Mike Singletary. But he has had a mere fraction since the installation of the new regime.
Three prolific college backs later, his time might be up in San Francisco.
While he has a ton of heart and makes this a better team character-wise, on the field Dixon is a utility player with no special gifts. As the 49ers cut down, trying to find the best available players for their 53-man roster, Dixon may finally be rendered obsolete.
Dylan DeSimone is the San Francisco 49ers' lead columnist for Bleacher Report. A former NFL journalist and fantasy football writer for SB Nation, Niners Nation and SB Nation Bay Area, Dylan now writes for B/R.
To talk football with Dylan, follow him on Twitter @DeSimone80.