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.
How many times now have we entered the summer with Anthony Dixon once again considered to be on the roster bubble? The 49ers drafted Dixon in the sixth round of the 2010 NFL Draft, so is this the fourth straight year where doubt has existed among the fans?
A year ago, Anthony Dixon was a question mark in our minds as the 49ers added several potentially talented players. The team signed Brandon Jacobs and Rock Cartwright, and immediately red flags flew up about Dixon's roster chances. Jacobs was a guy who could handle the short yardage work, while Cartwright was a strong special teamer who could still get work done as a running back.
At the start of training camp, Dixon asked for fullback work and the coaching staff was happy to oblige. Dixon had to recognize that he was in a tough position for a roster spot, and was open to whatever it would take to prove his worthiness.
Dixon spent most of the 2012 season providing special teams work, but he got in some carries as the season wore on. In weeks four and five he got a combined eight carries thanks to 49ers blowouts. Then, starting in Week 11 against the Bears, Dixon found himself getting more work. He had 21 carries on the season, and 13 came in Week 11 through 17. It wasn't extensive work, but it was consistently added.
His usage rate is actually an interesting statistic (courtesy of Football Outsiders). Although Dixon does not see the field that frequently as a running back, when he is on the field he is frequently getting touches. In 2010 and 2011, Dixon touched the ball 57% of the time he was on the field with the offense. In 2012, that number climbed to 65%. He had 32 offensive reps last season, and he had 21 touches. That is not a huge number for analytical purposes, but it's still kind of crazy. The 49ers offense prides itself on creativity and diversity. I am a little surprised they would potentially tip their hand like that.
From Super Bowl media day
Why he could improve in 2013
It is a seemingly difficult situation for Dixon given the ridiculous depth the 49ers have at running back behind Frank Gore. LaMichael James finished the 2012 season strong, and Kendall Hunter should be back sooner rather than later from his Achilles tear. Even without factoring in Marcus Lattimore, you've got two solid options in Hunter and James, and then Jewel Hampton will look to work his way into the rotation.
If we are going to see more from Dixon in 2013, it would be in the short yardage work. Brandon Jacobs is out of the picture, so I would not be surprised to see Dixon get his share of preseason work in that role. One of Dixon's issues in the past was dancing around in the backfield, looking for openings. Dixon appears to have cut back on the dancing, and is doing a better job of using his size to make things happen. He'll need to continue that this year in that short yardage role.
Why he could regress in 2013
It is a numbers game at running back. With James and Hunter both splitting carries behind Gore, the numbers are limited. Dixon still could find that short yardage work, but maybe Jewel Hampton takes on some of that. Hampton is smaller than Dixon, but he's got enough size to potentially be effective. We don't know what we're getting with Hampton at this point, so that leaves us speculating for the most part. I think we see a similar Dixon in 2013, but there is potential for regression depending on what we see from Hampton.
Odds of making the roster
I'd say his chances are pretty strong this year. The team drafted Marcus Lattimore, but odds are high that he spends the season on the non-football injury list. He could come off earlier, but I would be a bit surprised. Given that, the numbers would seem to be there for both Dixon and Hampton to make the roster this season. The 49ers kept five running backs on the roster last year, which leaves room for both Dixon and Hampton.
Of course, the team was also sitting LaMIchael James early last season, so given his growth over the last year, they may be content with just four running backs to go with fullback Bruce Miller. This could leave Dixon and Hampton battling for a single roster spot.