The San Francisco 49ers had so many positives develop for them in their 31-21 win over the New Orleans Saints that the few negatives were overlooked. However, that has now changed with WR Kyle Williams tweeting he is out for the season with a torn ACL and a report saying RB Kendall Hunter is also lost for the remainder of the season with a torn Achilles. Both Williams and Hunter were hurt on the same play in the third quarter.
During the preseason one of the huge advantages Jim Harbaugh had on his roster was the depth on offense. Now more than ever Harbaugh will lean on the depth at wide receiver and running back that includes two rookies (WR A.J. Jenkins and RB LaMichael James) who have not played a down this season, and RB Brandon Jacobs who has one rushing attempt all season. Jenkins and James have never been activated this season, while Jacobs was activated for the first time last week against the Saints.
It’s great the 49ers have depth at running back and wide receiver, but the real problem is the three players previously mentioned have barely been on the field this season. It is one thing to be active all season on the practice field, but if you don’t see any game action on Sunday’s, and all of sudden you’re pushed onto the field to produce, it will take some time to get back into playing shape and to be reliable.
So where does that leave the Niners at wide receiver and running back moving forward? Here is Niner Noise writer Matt Hamm’s assessment from yesterday:
The 49ers are deep at RB and WR with veteran back Brandon Jacobs receiving his first on field action of the season against the Saints and the team’s first and second round draft choices still waiting on their first action of the season. If in fact Hunter and Williams do miss time the likelihood that AJ Jenkins and LaMichael James will see the field this season are good. Hunter is having an excellent season as Frank Gores primary backup averaging over five yards per carry but the tremendous depth the team possesses at the position put them in great position to get over the injury. At the receiver position the team can easily handle the injury to Williams by giving more playing time to veteran Randy Moss and perhaps activating Jenkins on game days.
I agree that coach Harbaugh will likely involve and target Moss more in the offense than he has this season. Williams was not a huge part of the passing offense with 14 receptions for 212 yards and one touchdown, but he was a real threat opposing defenses could not ignore. Colin Kaepernick will miss Williams the most because was a target for the QB downfield with four receptions and 84 receiving yards combined against the Rams and Bears. Jenkins will likely be activated for the first time this season for Sunday’s game, however, what concerns me is that Harbaugh has previously said the rookie was not ready to play yet. This is why he has not been activated this season. But now Harbaugh has no choice with very few options on the roster.
In addition to Jenkins, the Niners have Moss, Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and Ted Ginn at wide receiver. But the reality is they only have four options as Ginn is primarily the returner on punts and kickoffs. Ginn is dealing with an injured wrist which he suffered in the Saints game and his status is unknown for Sunday. The Niners shouldn’t risk injury to Ginn by inserting him back into the offense at wide receiver. With Hunter out, who was the backup kickoff returner, Ginn will be relied on even more for returns. Williams also served as the punt returner while Ginn was hurt early in the season. He did so again against the Saints when Ginn was dealing with his wrist injury. Jenkins can also return punts but expect the Niners to sign a free agent wide receiver that also has experience in the return game.
Replacing Hunter at running back will be the tougher task for Harbaugh. Hunter has been amazing this season as Frank Gore’s main backup averaging 5.2 yards per carry and has 371 rushing yards and 2 rushing touchdowns. Hunter provided the 49ers with a great complement to Gore as an elusive runner with speed and a great ability to find the open running lanes. Hunter allowed the Niners to rest Gore more often as he only has two games this season with 20 or more carries and is averaging his lowest amount of carries of his career since 2006. Through 11 games last season Gore had five games with 20 or more carries.
Despite Jacobs and James only having one carry between them this season, their reliability on offense will gradually increase the more they play. Jacobs is a veteran and he will take less time getting into game playing shape than Jenkins. James has not played one snap this season, but in preseason games he looked good running the read-option with Kaepernick. Now Kaepernick is at quarterback and the offense is running more read-option plays, so James could find an active role for himself on offense. In the meantime, Gore will have to take a heavier load which will expose him more to injuries, especially this late in the season. Anthony Dixon is also a backup who might see his carries increase, but don’t expect him to become a big part of the running game.
Harbaugh rarely makes bad personnel decisions, but the decision to keep Jacobs, James and Jenkins inactive all season could come back to haunt the 49ers. It’s not often that a team loses two key players on offense on the same play, but injuries are a part of the game. Harbaugh took a gamble by keeping them inactive, but if the offense continues charging along like it has, the gamble will be forgotten. Now is the time for Jacobs, James and Jenkins to shine and to show why they should have been activated all season.