49ers vs. Broncos: What did we learn about the running backs?

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers starting running back and the top of the depth is fairly settled, but there remain some questions further down. We take a look at Thursday's preseason opener, and how the performances impacted the roster competition.

Now that the first preseason game is in the rear view mirror, we can look back at the various positions, and start to draw some conclusions we could not draw when we did not get to see practice. Things like the depth chart and playing time gave us an opportunity to better understand what has gone down over the last two weeks.

One position where we got some answers (and maybe some new questions) was at running back. Frank Gore was in uniform for the game, but did not play. With Kendall Hunter on the PUP list as he recovers from his Achilles injury, LaMichael James got the start. Anthony Dixon came on in relief of James and handled the bulk of the running back work. D.J. Harper came on along with Dixon, while Jewel Hampton apparently made an appearance, but somehow did not get a snap.

James led the way with eight carries for 27 yards. He had some solid moments in the first half, but did not get involved in the passing game. Once Gore and Hunter are back in the lineup, James will still get plenty of rushing opportunities, but I think he is the guy that they'll get out in space to take advantage of his speed and athleticism.

Anthony Dixon had a strong performance on special teams, and some solid moments in the running game. There were a couple instances of the dancing that can drive us crazy, but I think for the most part he did a good job either hitting the hole, or getting to the open spot on the line. He finished with seven rushes for 27 yards, but also had two runs for 48 total yards called back because of holding. We can't say with any certainty how the runs would have played out without the penalties, but it's at least worth noting.

D.J. Harper got 15 snaps on offense, and did not help his cause. He finished with two rushes for -6 yards, and a fumble that was scooped up and run back for a touchdown. On the fumble, blame can be split between Harper and offensive tackle Patrick Omameh. After the snap, Omameh missed his block, which opened up the big hit on Harper. Harper deserves his share of the blame for poor ball security. When you're an undrafted free agent, every little mistake is magnified.

What was arguably most telling from the running back performances was the lack of Jewel Hampton. The 49ers second year back was active, and the game book states that he did enter the game, but he is not listed as having a snap. Chris Biderman from Niners Digest mentioned how Harper seemed to be inching ahead of Hampton because he was looking better in pass protection. Given that Hampton did not appear to get any snaps on Thursday, that would seem to be a significant issue.

Thursday's performances did not win or lose any jobs, but they did put some pressure on some folks. As it currently stands, Harper and Hampton are on the outside looking in. I think one or the other still has time to make a sufficient impact to claim a job, but they did not get off to a good start. As it currently stands, I'd have to project Anthony Dixon making the roster, and the other two competing for a practice squad spot.

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