San Francisco 49ers: Position Breakdown and Depth Chart Analysis at Running Back

Peter PanacyCorrespondent IJune 6, 2014

San Francisco 49ers: Position Breakdown and Depth Chart Analysis at Running Back

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    Veteran running back Frank Gore still tops the 49ers' depth chart at running back.
    Veteran running back Frank Gore still tops the 49ers' depth chart at running back.USA TODAY Sports

    The San Francisco 49ers are a power running team that has long relied on its abilities to move the ball on the ground as its primary form of offense.

    In 2013, the 49ers ranked third in the NFL with 2,201 rushing yards and there are few reasons to speculate any difference in approach entering the 2014 season.

    Frank Gore, perhaps regarded as the greatest running back in 49ers' history, will again enter the fray as San Francisco's featured back. Yet Gore is 31 years old and has already surpassed the age where most running backs call it a career.

    Still, the 49ers look as if they have a set plan in place whenever the team decides it is time to move on from the five-time Pro Bowler.

    A year ago, San Francisco added South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore who spent his entire rookie season recovering from the horrendous knee injury suffered his senior year. In the 2014 NFL draft, the 49ers tabbed Ohio State power back Carlos Hyde, who may eventually wind up being the featured back in San Francisco's future plans.

    Complementing this trio are a number of other backs, including Kendall Hunter LaMichael James and Jewel Hampton.

    In an age where most NFL teams rely heavily on their passing offense, the 49ers have gone against the grain—relying heavily on the run game.

    We should expect to see plenty more of this in 2014.

    Yet the new additions, combined with Gore's age and the incumbent depth at the position, force us to speculate how this particular unit will look entering the season.

    There remain position battles to be won. Which budding young star looks as if he will be the heir apparent to Gore? What plans to the 49ers have for backups like Hunter, James and Hampton?

    These questions and more shall be answered as the 49ers move towards the regular season.

    But for now, let us break down the depth chart at running back as the 2014 season draws near.

     

    For a full positional breakdown and depth chart post the 2014 NFL draft, be sure to visit this author's analysis here.

Jewel Hampton

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    Running back Jewel Hampton is a long shot to make the final 53-man roster.
    Running back Jewel Hampton is a long shot to make the final 53-man roster.USA TODAY Sports

    No. 5—Jewel Hampton

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    Having a lot of depth at running back is never a bad thing.

    Considering the attrition rate that NFL backs receive at such a high, competitive level, this added depth can always prove to be a bonus given time.

    For the case of Jewel Hampton—a 2012 undrafted free agent (UDFA) signee out of Southern Illinois—the only possibility of him becoming a significant contributor in 2014 would be if the 49ers needed to use that depth.

    At 5'9" and 210 pounds, Hampton does have the physique that suggest he is a small, powerful back who can put pressure on other teams' abilities to bring him down to the ground.

    Yet he is buried deep on San Francisco's roster, as he has spent the majority of his NFL career on the 49ers practice squad.

    Still, San Francisco's coaching staff has to see some value in him, as noted by Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area back in January.

    49ers sign QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson and RB Jewel Hampton to contracts for 2014 season. Both were on 49ers' practice squad.

    — Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) January 22, 2014

    Even though the 49ers signed Hampton to a reserve/future contract, it is difficult to fathom him making his way onto the final 53-man roster any time soon.

    While he has seen a few reps during the team's organized team activities (OTAs) per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, Hampton is staring up at plenty of NFL-worthy talent, players who have a much better shot of cracking the roster.

    In all likelihood, Hampton finds his way onto the practice squad again in 2014. Barring any injury or unforeseen circumstances this season, Hampton stays there another year.

LaMichael James

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    What will LaMichael James' role be in 2014?
    What will LaMichael James' role be in 2014?Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    No. 5-LaMichael James

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    One of the preeminent questions surrounding the plethora of backs on San Francisco's roster is what role—if any—will two-year veteran LaMichael James hold for the 49ers in 2014.

    It is no secret that James is frustrated with the relative inactivity he has had in the 49ers offense over the past two seasons. He has voiced such via his Twitter account on multiple occasions.

    James was already frustrated with his role last season—a year that did not include the eventual debuts of backs like Marcus Lattimore and Carlos Hyde. With those two now in the mix, are James' days in San Francisco numbered?

    There already is speculation that James could be moved at some point before the regular season. Back in April, Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee indicated that James was on the trading block.

    Chris Wesseling of NFL.com also weighed in on the possibility of James being moved, writing:

    Left out of the 49ers' running back rotation even before the arrivals of Carlos Hyde and a relatively healthy Marcus Lattimore, James has seemingly been on the trading block for a year now. We suspect he hasn't been moved because no team is willing to part with a mid- to late-round draft pick for an underwhelming scatback. He did star at Oregon under Eagles coach Chip Kelly.

    Wesseling reinforces this point—James' touches on offense were scant even before Lattimore and Hyde. Now, it seems as if any chances to impact the offense will be at minimum.

    For now, all James can do is try to prove he belongs in a more prolific role.

    I honestly live in the moment I don't think bout tomorrow or next month just focus on today #goodmorning

    — LaMichael James (@LaMichaelJames) May 27, 2014

    James is participating fully in the 49ers' voluntary OTA period per Kevin Lynch of SF Gate

    He also has value as the 49ers' principle return man, although after the additions of players like Bruce Ellington in the draft, one can speculate whether or not James is worth holding onto specifically for this role.

    If the 49ers elect to retain him entering the 2014 season, James' lone value will remain on special teams. It is hard to see him doing much more than that at this point.

Kendall Hunter

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    Kendall Hunter's role as the 49ers' No. 2 back is thwarted by the additions of Marcus Lattimore and Carlos Hyde.
    Kendall Hunter's role as the 49ers' No. 2 back is thwarted by the additions of Marcus Lattimore and Carlos Hyde.Reinhold Matay/Associated Press

    No. 4—Kendall Hunter

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    Another running back on San Francisco's roster who could see a drastic cut in playing time is Kendall Hunter.

    For the better part of his three seasons, Hunter has been the primary backup to Frank Gore and has done so admirably. During that span, Hunter has totaled 262 rushing attempts for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns.

    Hunter's long-term future with the 49ers may have already been in jeopardy when San Francisco inked Marcus Lattimore before the 2013 season. With Lattimore redshirted for his rookie season, Hunter's initial role did not change much, but the scenario is vastly different headed towards 2014.

    Now, Hunter has to compete with Lattimore, LaMichael James and second-round pick Carlos Hyde for touches.

    It is next to impossible to think the 49ers will part ways with Hyde and Lattimore. Both players' stocks are on the rise entering the season, leaving the scraps for players like Hunter and James.

    So which of these two—essentially competing for one roster spot—earns the nod?

    We have discussed the possibility of moving James, who, with his speed and collegiate success, could be attractive to some teams and productive if put into the right situation.

    Yet Hunter has more practical NFL experience, and there is obviously more tape on him if one wants to assess his trade value that way.

    Further complicating the discussion is the fact that Hunter is entering a contract year and is making $754,805 this season. He is a cheap commodity—easy to keep on roster but also easy to move.

    Lauren Moranor of Sports World Report speculates on which of these backs wind up remaining on the roster by writing:

    The 49ers will likely carry three backs into the season. James has the best trade value of the Hunter and Lattimore. After a successful college career that included a Heisman nomination, James could be a standout back if given the chance. Hunter's value is low thanks to limited playing time. Lattimore ended his college career after a gruesome injury that he is still working to come back from. However, the 49ers could keep James and possibly release the other. They must make a move either way.

    The 49ers do reward players who have showcased their value to the team. Hunter has done that on limited chances. Still, this position is crowded and it remains up in the air whether or not Hunter's tenure in San Francisco is guaranteed.

     

Marcus Lattimore

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    No. 3—Marcus Lattimore

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    Before the 2014 NFL draft, all signs pointed to Marcus Lattimore being the heir apparent to Frank Gore.

    This author, for one, could not wait to see what Lattimore's impact would eventually be once he was able to take the field following his injury-related absence from the 2013 season.

    Yet after San Francisco drafted Carlos Hyde in Round 2, all thoughts to Lattimore eventually taking over Gore's role shifted entirely. 

    Trent Baalke said Carlos Hyde was the best player on their board. It's no slight on Marcus Lattimore. #49ers

    — Chris Biderman (@ChrisBiderman) May 10, 2014

    There are a number of ways to look at the trio of Gore, Hyde and Lattimore moving into the upcoming season.

    First, we cannot overlook the possibility the 49ers are not totally confident in Lattimore's recovery. 

    He has been dealing with injuries at the start of OTAs. If the 49ers feel as if Lattimore's injury-riddled past may come up to bite him once more, the addition of Hyde makes oh-so-much more sense.

    On the other hand, one has to consider the fact that Gore is entering a contract year this season—more on that later. This, combined with veteran back's age, requires us to look at the 49ers' future at running back past 2014.

    Having a running back tandem like Lattimore and Hyde is tremendous considering the weight San Francisco places on its ground attack.

    Marcus Lattimore and Carlos Hyde are at 49ers rookie minicamp. Just let that talent sink in for a second.

    — Vincent Frank (@VincentFrankNFL) May 23, 2014

    Now, the remaining question is which young back earns the nod as Gore's immediate backup, and which player will eventually stand out as San Francisco's No. 1 guy.

    The competition is something Lattimore relishes.

    “I look at it like it’s competition,” Lattimore said via Taylor Price of 49ers.com. “Competition brings out the best in you. It brings out the best in every player in the backfield. We’ve got a group of great guys and we all want the best for each other, but at the end of the day, we all want to play.

    49ers RB Marcus Lattimore looking forward to competing with Carlos Hyde: http://t.co/SXpcPnkDde pic.twitter.com/LazEMKZ9sB

    — Sports Illustrated (@SInow) May 17, 2014

    At the end of the day, it's unlikely to be Lattimore who gets the accolade of being the future back of the 49ers. That honor is reserved for the next guy on this list.

    Carlos Hyde not insurance for 49ers, he's the feature back of the future http://t.co/NE573OQ9pB

    — Niners Nation (@NinersNation) May 11, 2014

Carlos Hyde

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    No. 2—Carlos Hyde

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    If Marcus Lattimore does not earn the eventual nod as featured back for the 49ers, it will almost assuredly be San Francisco's second-round pick in 2014—Carlos Hyde.

    Hyde is perhaps the best fit to replace Gore in his exact mold following the 2014 season. Like Gore in his heyday, Hyde is a downhill runner who is difficult to bring down. His 6'0", 230-pound frame does everything to suggest this, as does film provided in the above video.

    With a player like Hyde, the 49ers can ensure they have a running game that will not lose too much once Gore is gone. In fact, the emergence of Hyde could further solidify San Francisco's dominant ground attack for the foreseeable future.

    This is a good thing.

    Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated predicts Hyde's impact in regards to the future of the 49ers:

    In 2013, the 49ers fell from first to 29th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards metric, which is based on how well lines and backs work together. Frank Gore had his third straight 1,000-yard season and seventh overall, but he’s in his 30s now, and Hyde is an excellent addition in the second round for a team based on power running. The 6-0, 230-pound Hyde ran for 1,521 yards on just 208 carries last season, broke the 200-yard mark in two of his last five games, and averaged 3.1 yards per carry after first contact. In the second half of the season and the playoffs, Gore averaged 3.8 yards overall.

    Farrar's comments showcase just what we mean by saying the 49ers' ground game may trend upwards entering the 2014 season. Hyde is simply that good.

    Yet Hyde recognizes that there is still plenty of work to be done. According to Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com, Hyde's top priority is learning from Gore—not a bad approach considering all of Gore's accomplishments over his career.

    At top of #49ers RB Carlos Hyde's to-do list: "Learn from Frank." STORY: http://t.co/yxTiT68Shd pic.twitter.com/MSi2tVXUE9

    — San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) May 20, 2014

    Spent some time with 49ers RB Carlos Hyde at NFLPA Rookie Premiere last week. Like his humble attitude. Thrilled to be Frank Gore's teammate

    — TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_PPI) June 2, 2014

    This sort of approach is tremendous as Hyde looks forward to his rookie season. With his power and terrific collegiate production, it's easy to envision him assuming the team's top running back job in the near future.

Frank Gore

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    2014 may be the final year of Frank Gore's storied tenure in San Francisco.
    2014 may be the final year of Frank Gore's storied tenure in San Francisco.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    No. 1—Frank Gore

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    It is tough to admit, but we may very well be witnessing the swan song of Frank Gore, at least in San Francisco.

    At 31 years old, Gore has already surpassed that age when most running backs hang up their cleats. 

    To his credit, it is great to see Gore contributing at such a high level now entering his 10th season. But one cannot overlook the fact that Gore is slowing down.

    Gore averaged 4.1 yards per carry in 2013—still serviceable, but the lowest of his career. Additionally, Gore's yards per game numbers were down to 70.5—second only to his rookie season when he was competing for playing time against Kevan Barlow.

    On top of all this, Gore is entering the final year of a three-year, $19.213 million contract. At an average yearly salary of $6.4 million, Gore is an expensive commodity with whom the 49ers will likely look to part ways  at the conclusion of 2014.

    If Gore does return in 2015, it will assuredly be at a much more team-friendly salary. Furthermore, his playing time will be limited should Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore emerge as expected.

    An excellent breakdown of what could be Gore's final year can be viewed here via SB Nation.

    Whatever the case may be, we have to look forward to his role in 2014. Barring any unforeseen circumstance, Gore will emerge as the team's No. 1 running back entering the regular season. He has not lost that position just yet.

    A possible scenario for 2014 is this—Gore receives the nod at starter to kick off the regular season. This allows Gore to retain his status as a leader and primary contributor to the team's offense, while young backs like Hyde and Lattimore learn the ropes of competing on the NFL stage.

    As the latter two develop, Gore's carries should decrease over time, perhaps with a team intent on keeping him fresh for another playoff run.

    This approach solves two things. First, it allows backs like Hyde and Lattimore to develop at more comfortable, less demanding pace. And it allows the 49ers to start transitioning away from Gore—something they will have to do in the near future.

    49ers need to wind down Frank Gore http://t.co/Rsv1d8BV0u

    — Grant Cohn (@grantcohn) June 4, 2014

    San Francisco fans would like to see Gore go out on top. Hopefully he does, with a Super Bowl ring to go along with his lofty accomplishments.

    There is still one more season to accomplish this.

    San Francisco is blessed with a plethora of talented running backs as they prepare for the 2014 season. The team can also count upon a strong reserve backs who can supplement the play of Gore as needed.

    There are battles to be had as we determine the final depth chart, and these will continue to play out as the 49ers move through the preseason. Exactly how they turn out remains to be seen, yet one thing is for certain—the 49ers love to run the ball.

    As 2014 draws near, they are in as good a position as ever to do this.

     

    All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated. Contractual information courtesy of Spotrac.com.

    Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers coverage and analysis.

    Follow @PeterMcShots on Twitter.

     

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