We have to face it, Frank Gore isn't getting any younger and their needs to be some production behind him on the depth chart. I am not saying that his production is slowing down. Instead, I have come to the conclusion that the 49ers should limit his carries in order to preserve his talent.
Gore has only played a full 16 game slate only once in his career, so there remains a strong chance either Kendall Hunter or Anthony Dixon are going to start a game or two in 2011.
Which one should be the primary backup to Gore? Or, should they share duties?
Frank Gore has not carried the ball more than 260 times in any season since 2005. If you equate that to an entire 16 game schedule, it means that there are a lot of carries to be had when Gore isn't in the game. Gore has averaged 14.5 rushes per game over the last four seasons if you take into account a full 16 game schedule. He has missed 10 games over that time, but the 49ers still have to play football and run the ball when he isn't available. Couple that with the fact that Jim Harbaugh's offense have been somewhat run heavy at Stanford, and you are going to see a lot of opportunity for two unproven running backs.
First, I want to get into both Kendall Hunter's and Anthony Dixon's college careers. It is still extremely important considering both are young running backs and haven't proven anything of as yet in the NFL.
Mississippi State: 2006-2009
2006 169 Rushes- 4.0 AVG- 668 Yards- 9 TD
2007 287 Rushes- 3.7 AVG- 1066 Yards- 14 TD
2008 197 Rushes- 4.4 AVG- 869 Yards- 7 TD
2009 267 Rushes- 5.4 AVG- 1391 Yards- 12 TD
Dixon's yards per attempt statistics increased over from his Sophomore to Senior seasons. However, they seemed to be rather pedestrian in the grand scheme of things. He was extremely solid in short yardage and goal line situations; scoring 42 career touchdowns. Of those scores, 26 were from within the seven yard line. Dixon did have 17 career 100 yard games and the large majority of them came against touch SEC opponents.
Dixon was not a factor in the passing game, catching a total of 56 passes in his college career, 38 in his final two seasons. Mississippi State did allow an obscene amount of sacks in 2008 and 2009, which directly leads to a lack of blocking ability from both the offensive line and running backs. Dixon wasn't called on to block a lot, but when he did he fell on his face.
Mocking The Draft had an interesting scouting report on Anthony Dixon's blocking ability leading up to the 2010 draft
For as big as Dixon is, you'd expect him to be a much better blocker. However, he too often is late to react to a pass rusher and could be described as an el matador blocker.
This is exactly what surprised me when I watched tape heading into last April's draft. He doesn't read packages incredibly well and isn't able to react in time to fill the gap and protect the quarterback. We saw this a lot during his rookie season, and it must be improved for him to stay on the field consistently. Dixon did improve in this aspect as he got more playing time towards the end of the season, however, it is something that the coaching staff really needs to address before he is ready to contribute a great deal more in this part of the game.
Oklahoma State: 2007-2010
2007: 107 Rushes- 6.5 AVG- 696 Yards- 4 TD
2008: 241 Rushes- 6.5 AVG- 1,555 Yards- 16 TD
2009: 89 Rushes- 4.3 AVG- 382 Yards- 1 TD
2010: 271 Rushes- 5.7 AVG- 1,548 Yards- 16 TD
On the surface you are looking at much better numbers than what Anthony Dixon put up at Mississippi State. However, you have to look at offensive scheming and talent in order to understand the possible inflation in Hunter's stats. First, the Big 12 isn't known for its defense as much as the SEC; this is an incredibly important distinction to make. Dixon was going up against the defenses of Alabama and Auburn and Hunter wasn't.
Kendall Hunter also had the likes of Russell Okung and Brandon Pettigrew (who is a solid blocking TE) filling up potential tacklers for him; Anthony Dixon wasn't as lucky. Scouting reports in regards to Hunter's blocking ability also worries me. The following is from Draft Breakdown.
Hunter struggles with his pass-protection. He lacks size, functional strength at the point of attack, and the willingness to put his body on the line.
As with Anthony Dixon, you are not going to see a lot of Kendall Hunter in the game on 3rd down situations because of his lack of blocking ability and inability to catch the ball out of the backfield. However, that really isn't going to be a major issue considering Frank Gore is the 49ers go to running back on 3rd down. He is great receiver out of the backfield and extremely solid in pass protection.
All that noted above, I am extremely high on Kendall Hunter and what he can bring to the San Francisco 49ers. With over 700 college rushing attempts under his belt, Hunter can come in an contribute right away. You have a player here that can break tackles, isn't afraid to mix it up in the middle and has the ability to hit the edge. He doesn't have 4.2-40 speed, but is much faster on the field than what the combine etc... would want you to believe.
If Kendall Hunter can improve in the receiving game as well as in pass protection I could easily see him being a standout 1000 yard rusher in the NFL moving forward; this is how high I am on him. San Francisco had the opportunity to draft Jacquizz Rodgers instead of Hunter. While I was all for it at that time this selection makes a lot more sense. Rodgers will never be an every down running back in the NFL, and Hunter has the ability to become one if he improves on those weaknesses mentioned above.
I really don't think you are going to see either Anthony Dixon or Kendall Hunter be the primary backup to Frank Gore. Instead, you are going to see San Francisco mix it up with the two. By this I mean they are going to play in game specific situations.
Frank Gore will be the primary 3rd down back because he is one of the best receiving targets on this 49er team; that much is obvious to me. I believe you will see a nice amount of Anthony Dixon on short down situations; 3rd and one etc... instead of Gore.
You will see Dixon and Hunter come in on 1st and 2nd down to spell Gore. Once again that is going to be determined by the specific situation of the game. If San Francisco is backed up on its side of the field you will see more of Hunter because he has the breakaway ability that Dixon doesn't have; this is where I believe he will make his mark early.
The lack of blocking from both players worry me moving forward, but not as much in 2011 as later in their careers because Gore can more than make up for that. Additionally, I believe the coaching staff is going to work tirelessly to improve their blocking ability. I have all the faith in the world in Tom Rathman, Tom Drevno and Mike Solari in working with them. If not, neither player is going to make an impact as an every down back in the NFL. You need to have running back in the game that can be asked to stay on the backfield and protect the quarterback. Right now you don't have that in Hunter or Dixon.
Some linkage for you