The San Francisco 49ers are a week away from their first set of OTAs, which means the eventual training camp depth chart will start to get a little more clarity. I should say, clarity for the team. Given that OTAs involve no tackling, it's as much about the players learning the playbook, and any adjustments to it for the veterans. This is the kind of stuff we can't really know about, and so we're left to sort of half guess at what exactly is going on.
Nonetheless, this is our second of what should be a series of about 13 posts looking at the various positional depth charts. We started with a look at quarterback, and this afternoon we'll continue with a look at the running backs. We'll continue with the format of offseason changes, what the depth chart might look like, strengths and weaknesses, and wrapping with a look at what it all means.
The 49ers went into the offseason with Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Marcus Lattimore and Jewel Hampton on the roster, and Anthony Dixon hitting free agency. The team used a second round pick on Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde. There have also been trade rumors surrounding LaMichael James.
Gore is starting to show signs of age, but the wheels have not fallen off. With the right kind of rotation, Gore likely can remain effective in the final year of his current contract. I don't think he's a guy they want to rely on to handle 270+ carries, but he can still be effective as the primary guy. They've added a great young option in Hyde, and even if Lattimore's knee remains an issue, Hyde should be able to contribute right away in more of a short yardage, mop-up role. Hunter will enter the season at over a year and a half removed from his Achilles injury. A best case scenario sees him re-emerge more like the back of 2011 and pre-injury 2012, as opposed to the somewhat limited back in 2013.
While the depth is there, we really don't know what to expect from any of it. The worst case for this group sees Frank Gore get really old, really quickly, and none of the backups really being able to step in and provide much. Kendall Hunter was missing something last year in his return from his Achilles injury. Marcus Lattimore continues to rehab back from his devastating knee injury, but even he has said the final bit of confidence and burst likely will require seeing it on the field. And we have no idea what the team will do with LaMichael James. Even if he is not traded, is he more likely to work simply as a return man with no real value in the run game?
The addition of Hyde makes me optimistic this worst case scenario is unlikely, but until we see the backs on the field, it's hard to know what to expect.
What it all means
The 49ers made a bit of a statement with the addition of Carlos Hyde in the second round. Trent Baalke spoke repeatedly about how it was simply a BPA type move, but it's hard not to consider it in the context of Frank Gore/Kendall Hunter in their walk years, LaMichael James reportedly on the trade block, and Marcus Lattimore looking at August football action that will be his first in nearly two years. Even as running backs slipped deep down the draft board two weeks ago, Hyde is the guy to watch on the depth chart.
We won't learn much from OTAs, but it will be interesting to see how much work Lattimore gets, and who is getting work with the first and second team offensive lines. We won't be making hard conclusions from it, but it will add a little bit more context to the discussion.