The San Francisco 49ers are 23 days from their first training camp practice which means we'll start to get a better handle on who will rise and who will fall in the competition for roster spots. To prepare for training camp, we're going to go through a bubble watch of the entire roster. The plan will be to go position-by-position, and then compile it into our first bubble watch of training camp.
Yesterday we broke down the quarterback position, and today we're moving on to the running backs. The 49ers running backs will report on July 23, with the exception of Carlos Hyde, who will report on July 16 with the other rookies. Injured players report on July 18, but at this point I don't think Marcus Lattimore will be included with that group!
Locks: Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde
Strong Bubble: Marcus Lattimore, LaMichael James
Weak Bubble: None
Longshot: Jewel Hampton
The 49ers are incredibly deep at running back, with a strong contingent of backups to Frank Gore. The 49ers have drafted one running back each of the last four years, and that persistence could pay off in spades this season. All four could contribute to this team in some form or fashion, although I would not be surprised if one of them got traded between now and Week 1 of the regular season.
Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James are your two trade candidates. Hunter is entering the final year of his contract. If he sticks around, he is likely the primary backup to Gore out of the gates, with Hyde and Lattimore looked at as the long term future. I would be surprised if Hunter re-signed after this season. However, I would be perfectly fine playing out the year with him in the fold because he is an incredibly solid backup option to Gore. He will have a full season and two offseasons since his torn Achilles, and should be at or near 100 percent, both physically and mentally.
LaMichael James is the big question mark following offseason trade rumors. He looked sharp in minicamp as the punt returner, and will go into camp as the favorite to secure that job. If the team finds another option that can handle punt and kick returns with confidence, it could speed up the LMJ trade process. If they do not find such a player, LMJ will stick around and likely be focused on return work, not running back work.
I listed Lattimore as "strong bubble" because it really comes down to how that knee looks when training camp starts. It seems like he is ready to give it a go at full speed, but until we see him in such a situation, we can't say with certainty that "he's back". He'll be taking real hits for the first time in almost two years. He'll be trying out that extra gear for the first time in nearly two years. He'll be doing a lot of things he hasn't done since he thrashed his knee at South Carolina. If he is able to bounce back and look solid, he moves into lock territory. But for now, he remains strong bubble until we see him on the field again.
Jewel Hampton is stuck in a tough situation where there are just too many bodies ahead of him. He has another season of practice squad eligibility, and I expect him to end up there again. The preseason will likely see him get third and fourth quarter duty once again. If he clears waivers, he'll spend another season on the practice squad, and then get his best chance at a roster spot next season when the 49ers potentially lose Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter.