By all accounts, Kendall Hunter will return from injury in time for training camp. The injury he suffered -- an Achilles tear -- is a serious one, but it it's not usually a death sentence for the careers of running backs. Hunter is a very tough player, is well ahead of his rehab schedule, and should enter training camp as the No. 2 back behind Frank Gore, the longtime starter for the San Francisco 49ers.
Second-year back LaMichael James will be battling Hunter for playing time. In the future, Hunter and James might play in harmony as primary back and change-of-pace back; but for now, with Gore still getting plenty of carries, the two will be competing for carries behind him.
Personally, I don't think it will be a close competition. Hunter was great value for the 49ers, and was flashing signs of brilliance before he went down with the injury. Last season, he rushed the ball 72 times for 371 yards, good for a per-carry average of 5.2 yards. That YPC was higher than Gore, James and every other running back in the NFC West.
Does that mean Hunter is better than those players? No, not necessarily. But he's young, with a great burst, a stocky build and he's only going to get better. Everything Hunter has shown leads me to believe he can be a starting running back in the NFL. He may not have finished with 1,000 yards or anything along those lines last season, but I think he was well on his way to big things before his injury.
My bold prediction is that Hunter will beat out James for carries, and that he'll have at least 700 yards next season -- rushing. Keep in mind that, were it not for Hunter's injury, we'd probably have kept Brandon Jacobs and given him six or seven more carries over the course of last season, and James would have sat on the sidelines. We'd be asking the same questions about James that we're asking about A.J. Jenkins now.
I think James can end up being a quality back in the NFL. He'll be a solid change-of-pace guy and could be used in a lot of different ways, but I'm fully on board with the Hunter hype-train and I'm sticking to my prediction. Let's call it 750 yards, a 4.9 YPC and, accordingly, 153 carries. What say you?