It’s safe to say the first weekend of the San Francisco 49ers’ training camp didn’t go as well as they had hoped.
On Friday, Kendall Hunter limped off the field and was diagnosed with a torn ACL. He’s done for the 2014 season, which is sad. The 2011 fourth-round pick has looked fairly promising when he’s been on the field, but now he will have missed a year-and-a-half out of his four-year contract. A free agent after this season, Hunter’s future in the NFL is definitely a question at this point. Here’s hoping he makes a full recovery and finds a team for 2015.
Every injury brings with it a silver lining for some player, and the most logical beneficiary from Hunter’s injury would have been LaMichael James. James’ roster spot was a little bit in question, but with Hunter out, he’s a logical addition to the team for his prowess in the return game and experience in the system.
However, James was carted off the field on Sunday, suffering a dislocated elbow. The injury is expected to sideline him for four to six weeks, meaning he’ll miss most of training camp but should be ready to go early in the regular season, if not by Week 1.
This is the third time James has dislocated an elbow, having suffered the injury in high school, college and now the pros.
With Marcus Lattimore still on the NFI list with his knee injury, that leaves only three healthy running backs on San Francisco’s roster: Frank Gore, rookie Carlos Hyde and Jewel Hampton.
Where do the 49ers go from here? Losing two running backs in four days isn’t a worst-case scenario, but it might require some rethinking.
First of all, how good does the Carlos Hyde pick look right now? Without him on the roster right now, the 49ers would be in a major bind. Now, the pressure goes on him to become Gore’s primary backup right away. While he should be fine in the running game, it’s the pass-protection aspects that bear the most watching.
The reason I figured Hunter would still be Gore’s primary change-of-pace replacement is because Hunter is experienced with those blocking calls. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman, in his media session on Saturday, spoke of the importance of pass protection among running backs.
In the National Football League, when you look, just take a year worth of stats and see how many times you throw the ball, how many times will the running backs actually be responsible to block somebody, as a halfback, quite a few. Several, several hundred. So, that is a big part of the equation and what we're seeing nowadays, a lot of guys don't have a ton of work relative to what they use to in pass protection based on the type of schemes that are run in college, so. I think it shows a lot about a back in a lot of ways - run decision, hitting the hole, but certainly pass-blocking is a premium.
How quickly Hyde picks up on the blocking assignments probably will dictate how many of Hunter’s snaps go to Hyde right off the bat and how many Frank Gore has to pick up. We’re probably talking something in the neighborhood of 50-60 carries that were sort of earmarked for Hunter.
If Hyde were to receive all of them, he’d probably become the most-involved first-year running back with the team since Ricky Watters got 206 carries in 1992—and remember, Watters sat out his entire rookie season in 1991 with injuries. You’d have to go back to Roger Craig in 1983 to find a rookie back who would be used as much as Hyde would be.
If Hyde doesn’t pick up on the pass protection, Gore might have to shoulder a bigger chunk of the load than the 49ers were hoping. A 260-carry season isn’t out of Gore’s usual workload, but the team had to be hoping to lean less on the 31-year-old veteran in 2014. If I had to guess, I’d say the extra carries will head Hyde’s way at about a 60/40 split, but that’s a shot in the dark at this point.
It would not be at all surprising if the team tries to cut Gore’s training camp and preseason workload in response to the injuries. If there was a way to cryogenically freeze Gore until Week 1 of the season, I’m fairly certain the team would be all over it. With Hunter and James out, the team is running out of healthy legs to take training camp repetitions, and you don’t want to overwork Gore’s aging legs before the season even begins.
Help could be on the way, however. General manager Trent Baalke has said Lattimore is “close” to getting on the practice field, and he’s had “no setbacks.” Getting Lattimore back onto the field would be a great positive step for this running back corps.
At some point, the 49ers are going to have to start evaluating Lattimore’s current abilities rather than just the potential he had before he wrecked his knee. With Hunter and James out of training camp, that would be more opportunities for Lattimore to get practice.
It makes sense the 49ers would sign a veteran running back to help take some of the wear and tear off of the remaining healthy running backs—a camp body, as it were, to reduce Gore and Hyde’s workloads. The veteran would be a long-shot to make the final roster but would have a chance to show off in the preseason. That way, if another running back went down anywhere in the league, they’d have recent film for GMs to look at so they could fill the roster slot.
Who’s available in the last week of July? The pickings are slim.
According to his own instagram, the 49ers went with Alfonso Smith, who has spent the last five seasons buried on the depth chart in Arizona. He did play in 43 games for the club but mostly on special teams—he ended up with 48 carries for 156 yards in Arizona, most of them in 2011. Smith ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at his pro day at Kentucky, so he’s got speed, but that’s about it.
Smith received a -2.9 grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) last season, though it’s worth noting most of that happened against San Francisco in Week 6, when he had one carry that resulted in a fumble, as seen in this GIF (Smith is No. 29).
He also scored at -9.5 on special teams, so he’s little more than just a guy, to a certain point. He’s never shown a lot of agility or raw performance, even in college. Expect to see a lot of Smith and Jewel Hampton during the second half of preseason games as everyone else rests their legs.
Then again, no matter who the 49ers signed to fill Hunter’s roster spot, they would have been a long-shot to make the roster. As it stands right now, I expect the 49ers to start the season with a running back corps of Gore, Hyde, Lattimore and James. While that’s a bit of a downgrade from Kendall Hunter, the 49ers have the depth to absorb the injury without losing too much of a step.