49ers rookie running back Kendall Hunter does not look like he's fighting for a backup role, but more for the number one spot. However, with Frank Gore's 3-year contract extension worth $21 million, Hunter will have to accept the latter.
Hunter has been fighting for the second spot on the depth chart behind Gore with bruising back Anthony Dixon. Hunter and Dixon have two completely different styles, but Hunter adds a dimension the 49ers haven't had in some time. Hunter can be the X-factor that is threat to score whenever he gets the ball in open field.
Meanwhile, Dixon is a back that can be groomed into a premier back because starting caliber runners demand the physicality that he brings to the game. He has a big frame and is surprisingly quick with his cuts given his size. But the question isn't who the better overall back is, the question is which one is the better compliment to Frank Gore and fits the system.
Hunter is the perfect change of pace tailback the 49ers have been in dire need of. Hunter can run inside and outside the tackles. He can shoot through the hole and win a foot race for 53-yards if necessary, just ask Oakland who's made a reputation drafting track stars as players. Gore excels in quickness and shiftiness, more than he does in achieving a top speed; Hunter has that sixth gear San Francisco has been without.
Dixon could develop into a dangerous goal line back if that's the direction San Francisco chooses to go with him. He was rumored early on to possibly make the transition to full back because his frame could support the demands of the job. As for the middle of the field, Hunter has a better chance of getting chunks of yards at a time.
The former Oklahoma State Cowboy could be a real threat in the screen game, catching out of the backfield and edge runs like counters, pitches and off tackles. The other reason he may secure the backup position is the fact that he is already trustworthy to stay in the pocket and pickup blitzers. The best way to earn more time on the field is to prove your selflessness and be an efficient blocker; this goes for tight ends and running backs especially.
Where Hunter needs to improve is being a reliable check-down option for the quarterback when he's under pressure. I noticed Hunter was running routes out of the backfield, but he was not turning his head around soon enough, leaving the quarterback to take a sack or worse.
The possibility remains that there will be no named second starter, leaving the two backs to split time and carries evenly behind Gore. The name of the game is production through yards and touchdowns, so whichever man is getting the carries, we can be at ease knowing they have the same goal. Hunter could be the favorite though as a draft class member of Harbaugh's new regime. Already Hunter has shown great cutback ability, vision and runs extremely hard. While Hunter and Dixon await the results, at the end of the day, they both know they are playing for the same team.
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