Ever since LaMichael James was announced as the 49ers second round pick I’ve heard many different opinions on the running back situation in San Francisco. I just don’t think any of them are right. For the most part, the reaction has been that the 49ers added a Darren Sproles type of back. A home run threat, not a back capable of being an every down back, but a complementary player.
This same type of analysis is given to last years draft pick Kendall Hunter. He’s fast, good receiver out of the backfield, a home run threat. Not an every down back. Many draft critics didn’t like the 49ers selection of James saying he makes the 49ers a crowded back field and offers the same type of player they already had in Hunter.
But I can guarantee you this is not how the 49ers see it. Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh have danced to the beat of their own drum in regards to building a team their way. One year, 14 wins and just four losses later and well, so far, so good. Do you really think these two would draft two scat backs that had no other potential other than being scat backs in consecutive years? I don’t. I believe they have an entirely different vision for James and Hunter in the future. One that has them sharing the backfield. They will each play complimentary roles this season and maybe next with Frank Gore still the top dog in the backfield. Sooner or later, that’s going to change.
Here’s how I see things being handled in the 49ers backfield.
Frank Gore-The franchises all time leading rusher has a three year contract. A very organizational friendly contract at that. Gore is still a very good NFL RB and is the clear cut starter this year. Who knows how much longer Gore will be able to hold up as he approaches the dreaded age of 30. Gore could end up playing out his contract, but there’s no way in my book he remains the work horse or even the starter the entire time.
Brandon Jacobs- Jacobs was the insurance policy this season. The 49ers wanted more depth at the position and not knowing how the draft would shake out, Jacobs on a cheap, one year deal was attractive. Jacobs is still valuable in case Gore goes down to injury he will serve as the power back. If Gore were to get hurt early in the year, Jacobs could be looked upon to start in order to take pressure off of the young James and Hunter. If everyone remains healthy he’s simply the vet situational backup with little to no future on the team.
Kendall Hunter- Hunter being a little bigger and probably the better inside runner has the best chance of becoming the future “feature” back. When I watch Hunter I keep getting the feeling we’re watching the 49ers future version of MJD, Maurice Jones-Drew of Jacksonville. Hunter is fast, strong, cuts well and can run between the tackles. As Gore ages, Hunter’s chances will only increase and I believe he will show he can be a feature back.
LaMichael James- He is absolutely the HR threat now and probably fits the Sproles comparison like a glove this year and possibly next. Head coach Jim Harbaugh raved about James’ ability to do all kinds of things on the field. He was quoted as saying how good he is at running between the tackles and in the red zone. James will be a HR threat now and in the future, a scat back/receiver/return man, swiss army knife kind of back. But that’s not all he can be in my eyes and I think Harbaugh and Baalke feel the same way.
49ers literally adding the home run scenario to their offense. Kendall Hunter is a very fast back who can make things happen in a hurry. He doesn’t have elite speed like LaMichael James. Adding James adds a whole new dimension to the 49ers offense. A terrific runner and receiver, James has the potential to give NFL defenses fits, especially in the open field.
All bases are covered with veteran signing combined with James second round pick. Injuries decimated the 49ers at the WR position last year. They seem determined not to allow that to happen to any offensive position this year. The team now has four very good looking RBs, not to mention Anthony Dixon and Rock Cartwright are around.