The San Francisco 49ers entered training camp with arguably the deepest contingent of running backs in the NFL. That depth quickly took a hit in the first four days of practice. On Friday, Kendall Hunter suffered a torn ACL. On Sunday, LaMichael James dislocated his elbow. Hunter is expected to miss the rest of the season, which James is expected to miss approximately a month.
These two injuries have shaken up a depth chart that had a lot of talent, but still had some question marks as to who would do what. The injuries open the door for Jewel Hampton, and also saw the team reportedly agree to terms with Alfonso Smith. The Smith signing is expected to be made official today. With that in mind, I thought I would update the bubble watch specifically for running backs. We'll have a more thorough team bubble watch later today, but for now, here's how I see the running backs.
Lock: Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde
Strong bubble: LaMichael James
Weak bubble: Jewel Hampton
Long shot: Alfonso Smith
Other: Marcus Lattimore (NFI)
The biggest change I made was moving Jewel Hampton from long shot to weak bubble. Entering camp, Hampton looked like he was destined for another season on the practice squad. The depth of the running back corps seemed a certainty to squeeze him out. The loss of Kendall Hunter opened the door for him a little bit, and the injury to LaMichael James nudged it open even further. LMJ is expected back within a month, but it is entirely possible he might not be complete up to speed Week 1. Add in the fact that Marcus Lattimore remains on the NFI list, and Hampton's early season roster chances are not too bad. That does not mean Hampton will be on the team the whole season, but he could earn a roster spot for at least the first week or two.
LaMichael James is a tough one to figure out. On the one hand, he seemed just about locked in as the return man, and Hunter's injury would seem to open up some opportunities for James as more of the change of pace back. On the other hand, his injury opens the door for the 49ers to find another option to be the punt returner. I expect James to still end up with the job, but the injury leaves me questioning what might happen. There is just enough doubt that I did not want to list him as a lock at this point. That could change depending on his rehab progress, and how the return options look in the preseason.
Marcus Lattimore remains on the NFI list, with Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh both saying he's day-to-day, and almost there. As long as he remains on the NFI list, I can't include him anywhere aside from "other" on this bubble watch. I think he's on the roster if healthy, but given his history, we really can't make any assumptions.