The San Francisco 49ers win over the New Orleans Saints has come at a very big price, it is now being reported that running back Kendall Hunter will also be lost for the season with an Achilles injury. Wide receiver/return man Kyle Williams is also lost for the year after being injured on the same play.
Hunters injury is devastating for the 49ers, Hunter formed one of the best RB tandems in the league with Frank Gore and was averaging 5.2 yards per carry this season. Maybe more important than his production was his change of pace style that gave the 49ers diversity in the backfield from Gore’s North and South running style.
So now the question becomes how do the 49ers replace them on the field?
Let’s start with Hunter. The team has a lot of depth at RB and it’s likely that they will hand the #2 back duties to veteran Brandon Jacobs who has played just two snaps this season. Jacobs has been inactive for all but two games this year after Hunter placed a firm grip as the teams #2 back. Anthony Dixon has been the #3 RB on the depth chart due to his value on special teams. What this also means is that rookie LaMichael James is likely to see his first action of season and he needs to play if the Niners want to continue to have a diverse running style. Jacobs is also a big North and South type of runner and gives teams a lot of the same type of looks they would see from Gore, it will be interesting to find out if the coaching staff has enough confidence in James to plug him into the rotation.
The situation with Williams is a little more difficult since it could be two key positions that the team has to replace. Ted Ginn Jr suffered a hand/wrist injury and was pulled from the Saints game and replaced by Williams in the return game, if Ginn misses any game action the 49ers are in trouble at the return spot. Cornerback Perrish Cox is likely the next man up as rookies AJ Jenkins and James have yet to prove they can handle the duties, the team also signed Chad Hall to their practice squad as insurance.
Williams was also the teams best slot receiver and was on the field almost all the time when they went with three wideouts. Many would expect that Jenkins would be activated for that role but that is not what I foresee happening. I see less rotation amongst the teams top receivers and more playing time for Randy Moss along with some shifting of Mario Manninghams role. Manningham can play the slot and is probably the teams next best option with Williams out. The best alignment in three WR sets is now Michael Crabtree, Moss and Manningham, meaning Mario will need to slide to the slot during those situations. If the coaches don’t want to go with Manningham in the slot that would be going with Ginn or Jenkins in that role and I just don’t see that happening with Jenkins having yet to take a regular season snap and Ginns lack of production at the WR position and importance as the teams return man.
As unfortunate as these injuries are for the 49ers it could be much worse and would be for pretty much any other team in the NFL. The Niners are fortunate to have a veteran the caliber of Jacobs around that has virtually been unused that they can now trust in a big role in the running game. And having the teams first two picks in the draft in Jenkins and James sitting in the bullpen is unheard of, the fact that they play the same positions with similar body types and styles of the two injured players is almost too convenient. Moss should also be ready for a larger role having played in less than 33% of the teams offensive snaps so far this season.
Those who have questioned what Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers coaching staff was doing keeping Jacobs, James and Jenkins on the sidelines this entire season should thank their lucky stars now.