If there's anything the San Francisco 49ers have a surplus of this coming season, it's running backs. With the drafting of Oregon feature back LaMichael James in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft, the 49ers officially "loaded up" on guys who can run the ball. There was already talk about players being on the 53-man roster bubble before he was drafted.
Now it looks like the 49ers have seven running backs worthy of making the final roster. They've got multiple potential feature backs, a couple short-yardage guys, some outside runners and some inside runners, not to mention the fullback. We'll start by listing all of the guys currently in contention at halfback, shall we?
LaMichael James (Second-round pick)
Jewel Hampton (UDFA)
Now, how about the fullback position? We'll expand a little bit and list the guys who are hoping to make a contribution in a backup role, as well.
Cameron Bell (UDFA)
First, we'll talk about the running backs. Frank Gore is the unquestioned starter and will get the bulk of the carries in his eigth season with the team. He's coming off a season in which he rushed for 1,211 yards and had eight touchdowns - the fifth time he's rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a season. Gore might be slowing down due to all of the workload (with carry totals of 282, 312, 260, 240, 229, 203 and 127 in his seven seasons), and it's time the 49ers start looking to future successors.
More than that, it's time they look for guys to take some carries. They definitely have that at this point, and the most notable battle will be which running back takes the most carries. This likely means we'll be looking at a fierce competition between last season's fourth-round pick, Kendall Hunter and this year's second-round pick, LaMichael James.
They're not carbon copy players, but they both possess some great speed and quickness. Hunter is smaller, but he's got insanely thick thighs and has insane burst through the hole. Most just immediately assume that Hunter is an outside guy due to his speed and quickness, but his small size also makes him an excellent to disappear into a pile of guys and come bolting out the other side.
It's a pretty heavy debate even among 49ers fans where Hunter stands. Is he a change-of-pace guy or is he the successor to Gore? He'll be competing with James, who is also no slouch at inside running, but is quicker and seemingly more explosive. At the very least, one can assume that one of these two will be the successor to Gore, and they'll work that out during the season.
Initially, Hunter will have the leg-up, but Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke drafted James because they want competition everywhere. They sent a message by grabbing a fantastic play-making running back and now he'll get his chances to make plays. But will it be at the expense of anyone? That leads up to Brandon Jacobs and Anthony Dixon.
The latter is a player who the 49ers like, and actually gave him some crucial carries in 2011. Unfortunately, he didn't do much with them, and doesn't amount to much more than a special teams player. He's hard to bring down, but he's not hard to catch, which means he'll go down under a couple guys after only a few years, and hasn't yet gotten over his tendency to dance.
Jacobs, on the other hand, is seemingly a guy who will only be in on short-yardage and doesn't have much special teams upside. These two players do entirely different things, but will be battling for the same spot on the roster, which is just fascinating. Maybe Jacobs will light a fire up under Dixon and "Boobie" has a resurgence. Or maybe it's Jacobs that will have the resurgence. Who knows at this point?
The wild card here is Jewel Hampton, an undrafted free agent, who is described as a bowling ball with legs. No seriously, check out Niners Nation for that. The 49ers will put their best guys on the roster, and if Hampton can provide some nitty gritty short-yardage production, then he'll get in over Dixon and Jacobs. It's just that simple, but it's all up to him and that's an uphill battle.
So we then get to the fullback position - the 49ers have Bruce Miller, and he's the starter going forward. It's all relatively simple. There's no danger there, and though Rock Cartwright already had his job secured by being a leader on special teams, his ability to be a backup fullback. The one wild card is Cameron Bell, who the team might try to place on the practice squad if they're wanting another fullback. Byham is listed because he enjoys doing that kind of thing, but the 49ers are going to cry and create a weapon out of him in the passing game.