The one thing you hear NFL teams talk about regardless of the time of year is depth. You need to have players capable of stepping in at a moment's notice and performing at a high level in order to win a Super Bowl.
Fortunately for the San Francisco 49ers, they are afforded with great depth and high-end talent at the running back position. I say that because the team received bad news when it was announced that Kendall Hunter suffered a torn ACL during Friday's practice, via the team's Twitter:
The easy reaction when Hunter's injury was reported was simply to shrug. After all, the 49ers have built an incredible stable of running backs behind incumbent starter Frank Gore. Don't underestimate the value of Hunter, though.
Entering his fourth year out of Oklahoma State, Hunter has averaged 4.6 yards per carry on 262 attempts in 43 games as San Francisco's primary backup. His ability to pick up the blitz also gives him tremendous value for the offense.
Blitz pickup is going to be an area the 49ers focus on with Hunter out. As Matt Maiocco of Comcast SportsNet Bay Area noted, highly touted running backs Marcus Lattimore and Carlos Hyde didn't have to do much blocking in college.
Hunter's injury opens up a world of possibilities for the 49ers at the running back position, even more than they already had. Specifically, the two players this seems to benefit most are Hyde and disgruntled backup LaMichael James.
Hyde is the high-profile rookie in the bunch, coming out of Ohio State after rushing for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. He was a second-round pick in April's draft and the obvious candidate to succeed Gore, who is 31 years old and in the final year of his contract.
There will be growing pains along the way for Hyde, just as there are for every rookie. ESPN.com's Bill Williamson wrote after the first day of training camp that Hyde dropped two passes.
That is not consistent with what Hyde had been doing in minicamp and OTAs, as Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News wrote on July 16 that his "hands looked great in offseason workouts."
Don't be concerned about one bad day on the practice field for Hyde. He has the talent and ability to be a key contributor. Otherwise, the 49ers wouldn't have traded up in the second round to get him given how deep their current stable of backs is.
James, on the other hand, wants to be in a situation that gives him more playing time. He ended last season as San Francisco's key special teams player with 23 punt returns and 12 kickoff returns.
Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee reported in April that the 49ers were testing the market on James:
According to a league source, the 49ers have been shopping running back LaMichael James, a second-round pick in the 2012 draft.
James served as the team's primary returner last year and played well in that role, averaging nearly 11 yards a punt return. But the source said he has made it clear to the team he wants a bigger role as running back as well.
That was before the draft, so it's possible the 49ers just wanted to see if they could get a high mid-round pick for James with no real intention of trading him otherwise.
Hunter's injury is certain to mean good things for James, who played a notable role for the 49ers in his rookie season two years ago after Hunter went down late in the year with a torn Achilles. The former Oregon star had 27 carries for 125 yards in the last four games of 2012.
By comparison, with Hunter healthy all last season, James had just 12 carries in 10 games. Given his expanded role on special teams, the 49ers clearly have plans for the running back in the immediate future.
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James is like Hunter in a lot of ways. Both guys use more speed than power and are capable of running around defenders, so he can be that change-of-pace guy in San Francisco's offense this season.
The sample size isn't huge, but given the strength of San Francisco's offensive line and James' 4.7 yards per carry in his first two seasons, he's going to get a long look in the preseason.
Lattimore is the guy everyone roots for to succeed among this group because of what he's gone through just to get back on a football field, but until you see him carrying the ball again, it's hard to expect anything significant from him.
Since Jim Harbaugh took over as head coach of the 49ers in 2011, they have never attempted fewer than 492 rushes in a season. Gore isn't getting all those carries at his age. He's averaged 272 per season in Greg Roman's offense, so if we assume they run the ball at the same rate, that leaves at least 220 carries for everyone else.
The 49ers are lucky because they don't have to worry about losing Hunter, who is a valuable part of the offense. They have fresh young legs in the backfield to support Gore, led by Hyde and James.
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