Here at Niners Nation, we're presenting a series called "90-in-90". We'll be looking at every player on the 49ers offseason roster, one player per post, from now until the start of training camp.
Kendall Hunter emerged as a legitimate backup to Frank Gore in 2011. The then-rookie rushed for 473 yards and two touchdowns while appearing in all 16 regular season games, starting one. Last season, Hunter was on pace to best his 2011 numbers until a partially torn Achilles caused him to miss the final five games of the regular season and the entire postseason.
In his 11 games as Gore's backup last season, Hunter carried the ball 72 times for 371 yards and two touchdowns. The 5.2 yards per carry were better than his 2011 numbers by a full yard. The 49ers were so happy with Hunter's production when he was healthy that they kept veteran ‘plodder back' Brandon Jacobs almost exclusively on the sideline (even when Jacobs was healthy and not running his mouth ... which wasn't often.)
Hunter's injury allowed LaMichael James to emerge as a true offensive weapon. James has a skill set similar to that of Hunter; both are small shifty backs with better power than you think and excellent hands out of the backfield.
With Hunter now healthy and apparently ready for training camp, the 49ers figure to give all three backs significant playing time. How things will be handled is up for debate but it's clear that the running back depth is among the best in the NFL.
*Note: Marcus Lattimore has intentionally been left out of the conversation until someone from the 49ers indicates he'll play in 2013. That doesn't seem likely at this point.
Why Kendall Hunter could improve in 2013
How the running back position will be handled this year is a bit of a mystery. If Hunter is healthy I wouldn't be surprised to see him resume the primary backup role behind Gore. This would allow him to see 10-15 touches per game. If this is the case, I could see numbers very similar to Hunter's rookie season. 400-500 yards rushing plus 100-200 yards receiving with 2-5 total touchdowns.
I think Hunter gets the nod over James due to his pass protection and better play between the tackles.
Hunter's return gives the 49ers a crowded backfield. The coaching staff's ability to recognize what each back gives them and where one may be better than the other situationally, will be key to the success of this three-headed monster.
Why Kendall Hunter could regress in 2013
Coming back from an Achilles injury can be a long drawn out process. Hunter says he'll be ready to go come start of camp, but even if he's healthy, the logjam in the backfield could limit is opportunities.
One thing we know for certain regarding this backfield: All three will see significant time. Heck, the emergence of Colin Kaepernick and the pistol/spread/read option means we could see all three backs on the field at the same time! Imagine that!
The 49ers ran the ball 492 times last year and 498 times in 2011. Frank Gore received about 55% of those carries over both seasons. Assuming Gore gets 50% of the carries (250-ish carries) in 2013, that leaves about 250 carries to be split between Hunter, James, and Kaepernick.
LaMichael James has reportedly added 10 pounds to his frame, which would put him at 205lbs, about six pounds heavier than Hunter. If James is able to maintain his speed and shiftiness at that size, he could seriously bite into Hunter's playing time.
Point is, there is so much talent in the 49ers backfield that there may not be enough touches coming Hunter's way to surpass his production from previous years. That doesn't mean all three won't be key contributors to the 2013 offense.
Odds of making the roster
Hunter is as close to a virtual lock to make the roster as there gets. Barring a setback during his rehab or in training camp, I feel safe writing Hunter's name on the opening day roster in a thick black Sharpie.