The San Francisco 49ers running back situation opened training camp looking as strong as any in the league. The loss of Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James' dislocated elbow left folks wondering what to make of the situation.
LMJ is back in the fold, but with Anthony Dixon's departure, there remain some questions as to depth. Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde will handle the bulk of the work, with LaMichael James potentially getting some work as well. Of course, I thought that last year, but we saw how that turned out.
The question heading into the final preseason game and subsequent roster cuts is whether or not the 49ers will carry only three running backs (Gore, Hyde, LMJ) and one fullback (Bruce Miller) into Week 1. It could very well happen, but given how important the running game is to this team, it makes sense to think they would carry at least one more running back.
Last year, that extra running back was Anthony Dixon. He was listed as a fullback, but did fullback, short yardage running back and special teams work. This year, Will Tukuafu could conceivably handle that roll, but I'm not so sure. I suppose his size would be valuable for the heavy formations. But they do not really use him on special teams. My guess is that the team would look to another running back who could contribute both in the ground game, and in special teams.
That leaves us with Jewel Hampton, Alfonso Smith, and Glenn Winston. Hampton is entering his third season with the 49ers. He spent his rookie year on the NFI list, and then inactive for five games. Last season, he spent the year on the practice squad. Smith signed with the 49ers on July 29, the same day the team waived offensive lineman Fou Fonoti. Smith signed with the Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted free agent in 2010. He spent four seasons with the Cardinals, appearing in 43 games, including all 16 last season. Winston signed with the 49ers on August 4 when they waived/injured Kendall Hunter. Winston is a UDFA out of Northwood University.
Sunday afternoon, Winston looked the best of the three players. He rushed eight times for 58 yards and a touchdown. James put together a pair of GIFs I wanted to share. This first GIF is an 8-yard run in which we see a nice little cut-back. He finds a hole, and shows a little power to get five yards and the first down.
This second GIF shows Winston following some good blocking, but also showing some solid vision on the run. He cut through for 27 yards and the touchdown.
This was in the fourth quarter, so we should probably not get overly excited. But that doesn't mean we can't enjoy some of the skills Winston did show.
Alfonso Smith rushed four times for three yards. His best skills are on special teams. Jewel Hampton on the other hand, got zero offensive snaps, and four special teams snaps.
Do the 49ers keep one of these three? The veteran Smith likely has a bit of a special teams edge, but even that is hard to say with any certainty. Given the way running backs' value appears to be decreasing, it is possible the 49ers could decide they can slip Winston to the practice squad and go from there.
The lack of snaps was a little bit surprising for Jewel Hampton, but it is also possible they know what he brings to the table, and want to see more from Winston and Smith. If all three running backs make it through the first round of cuts to 75 players, Thursday will be interesting to see who gets the most work. That does not mean that person will make the roster or be signed to the practice squad (in the case of Hampton and Winston), but it is one more thing to consider.
Do any of them make the 53-man roster? Which one gets a practice squad spot?