Kendall Hunter 5.28.13 OTAsKendall Hunter found himself on a list of the NFL’s Top 25 prospects by Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders and ESPN (subscription required). Schatz, naturally, used DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), which compares the success every play to an NFL baseline determined by situation and opponent (For offensive players, the higher their DVOA, the better they are).

If you’re curious as to the validity of the list over the run-of-the-mill types that have overrun the blogosphere, Schatz is quick to point out the success of his list’s alumni, which include Miles Austin, Mike Wallace, Jeremy Kerley, Stevan Ridley, Geno Atkins, Morgan Burnett, Elvis Dumervil and Cortland Finnegan. Not a bad haul, really.

In addition to naming Daniel Kilgore an “Honorable Mention,” Schatz rated Hunter as 13th best prospect — somewhat surprising given that Hunter is returning for an  Achilles tendon tear. Here’s how Schatz justified his ranking:

San Francisco’s second-string running back was decent as a rookie (4.2 yards per carry, minus-6.5 percent DVOA) but really blossomed last year (5.2 yards per carry, 29.1 percent DVOA). Hunter combines speed with good balance and instincts. Though he’s small at 5-7, he runs low to the ground which helps him break tackles. He’s also been a good receiver in the NFL, even though his lack of participation in the passing game was seen as one of his weaknesses coming out of Oklahoma State. In the short term, Hunter will likely miss part of the season recovering from an Achilles tear, and could take time to get back to full strength even when he returns. In the long term, however, he’s set up for a nice career. Hunter is a more complete back than LaMichael James and the likely choice to take over the starting job from Frank Gore when the time comes (pending the return to health of Marcus Lattimore).

Just what sort of opportunities Hunter will receive this season is very much in question. His injury aside, Frank Gore has shown no signs of relinquishing his strangle hold on his position. But given Gore’s age, Hunter could be in-line for increased work load.

As I wrote last year, there are two essential schools of thought in the age deterioration debate: One the one hand, there are the Doug Drinens, who insist that “the peak period for running backs is age 27-28. As a group, running backs under 27 tend to improve, and running backs over 27 tend to decline.”

To support his theory, Drinen develop an equation, which can “predict the future career length of a back given his level of quality and his previous workload.” That equation:

Future rushes =~ 3203 – 104*age + 2.3*VBDLastYr + .813*PreviousVBD – .13*PreviousRsh

I plugged in the numbers last offseason and found that Gore still had 415 more career carries, or two more years before complete futility. Unfortunately, he used up 258 in 2012, which means he has only 157 carries until we’re forced to put him out to pasture.

On the opposite side of the debate stands Haverford University’s Chase Kennedy, who found that upon reaching 1750 carries, “production shows its largest expected decline,” but that the “trend does not continue when running back’s reach 2000 carries.” In other words, we shouldn’t expect to see much — if any — drop in Gore’s production. Of course, Gore is still 89 carries away from eclipsing the 2000 mark, so the unexpected could occur. Still, that Gore’s production has not declined sharply — think Shaun Alexander — is a good indication that it won’t.

Whatever becomes of Gore this season and beyond shouldn’t concern fans too greatly. Granted, the emotional attachment engendered by Gore and his career thus far will make his departure a painful one, but, as Schatz notes, there are more than capable running backs waiting in the wings — Marcus Lattimore included.