General manager Trent Baalke has been widely praised for a draft that addressed a number of present and future needs.
And perhaps the most exciting and surprising pick the 49ers made was the one they made in the second round to acquire the services of Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde.
After trading pick No. 56 to the Denver Broncos, San Francisco jumped straight back up to No. 57 to select Hyde, who muddies a backfield picture that already appeared complicated heading into the draft.
With starter Frank Gore approaching the end of his career and out of contract in 2015, this selection makes a great deal of sense for a team that makes a living out of being able to run the ball consistently. However, the 49ers now have four backs that are likely to be in competition for playing time behind Gore, potentially leaving San Francisco with a dilemma to solve at the position at some point in the future.
Here, I break down how the addition of Hyde has affected one of the most talented and crowded backfields in football.
Evaluating the pick
In attaining Hyde—arguably the best running back in the 2014 class—with a late second-round pick, San Francisco got extraordinary value. But what attributes will he bring to an already talented, although perhaps underachieving, offense?
Well, the 49ers will be getting a back that has many similarities to their all-time leading rusher, Gore.
A well-built, 240-pound workhorse, Hyde possesses a fantastic combination of size and power, which he used to great effect during his time with the Buckeyes to rack up over 3,000 yards rushing and 41 total touchdowns in four seasons in Columbus.
Hyde also displays patience and vision when running the ball, while his surprising speed for a player of his size and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield are two of the more underrated aspects of his game.
The main question mark surrounding Hyde heading into the draft was over his character following a three-game suspension at the start of the 2013 season in connection to an altercation involving a young woman at a bar.
However, Hyde rebounded from that controversy to enjoy a hugely impressive final collegiate campaign and clearly did enough to convince the 49ers to use an early-round selection to take him.
Hyde is an excellent fit for a run-first San Francisco offense, but it remains unclear how his presence in the team will impact the other backs currently signed to the 49ers roster.
Examining the other running backs
In order to make a proper judgement as to how Hyde's arrival will affect the roles of the other backs on the 49ers squad, we need to assess the status of each of those players within the team.
Few current players are as revered in San Francisco as Frank Gore.
The 49ers' all-time leading rusher is understandably a firm fan favorite and has shown no signs of slowing down. Last season, Gore produced his seventh 1,000-yard season in eight years and found the end zone on nine occasions, with Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranking him at No. 12 among all running backs in the NFL.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh said at league's annual meeting in March that Gore has "three more good years" in him. However, that remark is likely to draw some scepticism considering that Gore turned 31 on Wednesday.
It is yet to be seen whether the 49ers will choose to extend Gore's contract, but even with Hyde coming into the picture, he is a near-lock to be the starter in 2014.
Still, with Gore approaching the latter part of his career, expect Hyde to eat into his playing time as San Francisco looks to keep the ageing veteran fresh and as effective as possible.
As backup running backs go, Kendall Hunter has been extremely proficient in his three seasons in San Francisco
Indeed, the 2011 fourth-round pick has over 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns to his name as a 49er, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. However, like Gore, Hunter's contract expires at the end of the 2014 campaign.
While Hunter has been a serviceable player for the 49ers, it is difficult to see him staying with the franchise beyond the culmination of the coming year.
It has never looked like the former Oklahoma State Sooner has significantly reduced Gore's playing time, a fact that is probably more down to Gore's excellence rather than any of his deficiencies, but it's one that could well count against him when the 49ers come to evaluate their options next offseason.
His experience over Hyde, LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore may see Hunter earn more immediate touches than any of the other San Francisco backups, yet Hunter's long-term future in the Bay Area is questionable at best.
How do you solve a problem like LaMichael James?
It is a question that has likely plagued 49ers staff for some time and one that has consistently been on the lips of the team's fans.
The frustrating thing is that a player of James' caliber should not be a problem for San Francisco. He should, undoubtedly, be an asset to its offense. And yet the 49ers have struggled to find a role for the former Oregon speedster.
James barely featured in the running game in 2013, although he should be praised for at least solidifying the 49ers' return game after the below-par performance of Kyle Williams earlier in the season.
But limiting a player that totaled 58 touchdowns in his collegiate career to special teams appears a dreadful waste of talent. According to CSN Bay Area, James has previously expressed his disappointment at his role with the team, reportedly tweeting his frustration at being used as "insurance" back in October.
There has been speculation during the offseason that James could be on his way out of San Francisco, with Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee reporting last month that the 49ers were looking to trade the 24-year-old.
Those rumours have since been scotched by Baalke, who—per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area—expressed satisfaction with James' efforts in the return game and insisted that the 49ers have no plans to replace him.
San Francisco will hope that James—contracted with the team until 2016—will be able to show further improvement as a kick returner after ranking at No. 16 (subscription required) among all players at that spot in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus.
James, though, seems unlikely to be satisfied with featuring exclusively on special teams, and his role in that area may well be under threat due to the 49ers' addition of wide receiver Bruce Ellington, who can also contribute in the return game, with a fourth-round pick.
Hyde entering the picture makes James' future with San Francisco even more unclear, and unless the Niners can get him more touches, do not be surprised if the former second-round pick's time in the Bay Area soon comes to an end.
The 49ers have a wild card in their pocket heading into the 2014 season, and his name is Marcus Lattimore.
Selected in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, Lattimore's talent is doubtless. Yet no one really knows how he will perform when he takes to the field after missing his entire rookie year.
Lattimore tore three major ligaments in his knee in his final year with South Carolina and was redshirted last season by San Francisco.
There are questions as to whether Lattimore will ever be the same player, however, the 22-year-old has experience coming all the way back from injury, recovering from a torn ACL suffered in 2011 to play in 2012 following extensive rehabilitation.
His prospective return from his most recent injury has been reported to be going well, although Lattimore—per Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News—has recently conceded that he is still lacking the first-step burst that was so apparent in his career with the Gamecocks, which saw him put up over 2,600 rushing yards and 41 offensive touchdowns.
The general consensus seems to be that Hyde was drafted in part as insurance in case Lattimore does not pan out, but should Lattimore display the kind of form that impressed so many during his stint with South Carolina, then the Niners could have a magnificent prospective one-two punch on their hands.
Following linebacker Aldon Smith's latest off-the-field indiscretions, Baalke, per ESPN.com's Bill Williamson, stated that the 49ers "don't just open the door and toss people out."
That quote could be applied to any of the running backs currently on the 49ers roster, but the cold, hard truth is that eventually San Francisco will have to part company with at least one of its quintet of backfield options, as it did with Anthony Dixon this offseason.
Hunter looks to be the most likely candidate to be the next to move to pastures new, but the 2014 campaign may also be James' last as a 49er, depending on how the season plays out in terms of his impact on special teams.
But it is Gore who presents the real predicament for San Francisco. He could almost be considered ancient in running back terms, yet if he puts together another 1,000-yard season, then the 49ers will have little choice to reward him with an extension.
The best-case scenario for the Niners is that they finally secure that coveted sixth Super Bowl title, allowing Gore to sail off into the sunset and San Francisco to deploy a three-headed monster with Hyde and Lattimore, featuring James as the change-of-pace back.
With the talent at the 49ers' disposal, there is little doubt that they will be among the contenders for the Super Bowl, but the franchise certainly cannot afford to bank on that prospect, and it is a distinct possibility that San Francisco will have a difficult decision over whether to retain Gore beyond the end of the 2014 season.
In my view, the future at the running back spot is firmly in the hands of Hyde and Lattimore, providing, of course, that both are able to deliver on their undoubted potential. But with Gore—considered by many 49ers fans to be a prospective Hall of Famer—still performing at a Pro Bowl level, that future may take some time to arrive.
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