Each year, we like to run a series of posts called "90-in-90." The idea is that we'll take a look at every player on the roster, from the very bottom to the top and break them down a few ways. This roster will certainly change, and some days we'll have more than one so it's not exactly 90 players in 90 days. At this point, it's a name we're keeping around for street cred.
The San Francisco 49ers entered the 2013 season with solid depth at running back, but some questions surrounding that depth. It was similar to this year's in that regard, but obviously not quite as deep.
Kendall Hunter entered training camp last year still recovering from tearing his Achilles on November 25, 2012. Hunter opened training camp on the PUP list, but was activated on August 10. Hunter got three rushing attempts in Week 3 of the preseason, and four more in Week 4.
When the regular season started, it looked like Hunter would climb right back into the saddle as Gore's primary backup. He had six rushes for 24 yards in Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers. He had only one rush the next week, then four the following week. He didn't really settle into a specific groove, as we had seen a bit more of in 2012 and 2011. Over the course of the final 13 games, his carry totals were 11, 5, 3, 4, 9, 3, 4, 8, 3, 4, 8, 3, 2. It was clear Gore was the man, but after a strong rookie season, and a strong first 11 games of his second season, the team was not quite ready to get him back into a sizable work load.
Hunter average 4.2 yards per carry as a rookie, and was averaging 5.2 yards per carry in his second season before tearing his Achilles. In season three, Hunter averaged 4.6 yards per carry, but had his fewest carries per game. There are certainly some reasons, but given that Frank Gore is getting up there in age, my guess is he was not necessarily 100 percent what they needed. By season's end he was over a year removed from his Achilles injury, but maybe something just wasn't quite 100 percent right. I don't really know, but something seemed off in usage.
Why he might improve:
He's had another offseason to move further past his Achilles injury. The 49ers have added more depth with the drafting of Carlos Hyde, and the return of Marcus Lattimore, so there will be more bodies looking for carries. And yet, Hunter is the guy with the most experience in this backfield. He's over a year and a half removed from his Achilles injury, so that would hopefully bring some added confidence for him. He remains incredibly talented, and I have to think the 49ers will look to cut down Gore's carries considerable. Gore rushed 276 times last year, which was the third highest total of his career. I really could see the 49ers try and get Gore's carry total down closer to 200. If that happens, there is playing time to be taken and Hunter has an edge.
Why he might regress:
I think Hunter has an edge for playing time, but the 49ers get Lattimore back, and just drafted arguably the best running back in the 2014 NFL Draft. This really could swing either way. I think Hunter gets first crack at a lot of carries, but if Hyde and Lattimore impress, it could be hard to get the carries. From a pure talent perspective, I really don't think Hunter regresses as a player. I think it's more a matter of too many mouths to feed so his numbers just decline or stagnate because of that. As I see this running back group, if LaMichael James gets dealt, I think we see Hunter and Lattimore split sort of basic change of pace back work behind Gore, and Hyde gets the short yardage work.
Odds of making the roster:
The only way Hunter does not make the roster is if he is traded. I don't expect a trade, but I would not exactly be shocked if it happened. The 49ers have a lot of running back depth, and while we don't know what to expect from Lattimore's knee, Carlos Hyde is no slouch as well. I think we see the split of playing time mentioned above, but if the 49ers can find a willing partner, maybe they unload Hunter for a late round pick. Otherwise, he's making the roster.