The San Francisco 49ers would be hard pressed to deny one of the most prolific players in NCAA history a bigger role on their team next season, which is precisely why LaMichael James may be in line for an elevated performance in 2013.
Given his renowned talent and prestigious track record, he is going to make it awfully tough on the coaches to ignore him.
James made quite a name for himself with Chip Kelly’s Oregon Ducks, leaving the program with 58 career touchdowns, which was good enough for first in Pac-12 history (11th all-time in the NCAA).
The former NCAA rushing leader was also a Heisman finalist in 2010, finishing behind winner Cam Newton and runner-up Andrew Luck. A unanimous All-American and Doak Walker Award winner, James declared for the pros in 2012, hoping he’d be a featured player in the NFL like he was for three years at Oregon.
Once he touched down in the Bay Area, James quickly learned that it would be an uphill battle on coach Jim Harbaugh’s talent-laden roster. After being selected in Round 2 of the 2012 NFL draft (No. 61 overall), the rookie rode the bench in a sweat suit for 12 regular season games.
Now, one year removed from his highly anticipated NFL inauguration, the electric record-holder from Eugene, Ore. is looking to expand his role in his sophomore campaign.
“Any opportunity to get the ball in my hands, I’m all for it,” James told reporters at OTAs in May. “Catching the ball, running the ball, punts, no matter what it is, I just want to help the team win any way I can.”
The second-year pro has shown initiative, too, adding 10 pounds of muscle to his frame this offseason.
At 5’9”, 205 pounds, James is working to join several NFL elites that have utilized their compact stature to their advantage. Comparing his game to this time last year, he said, “I’m way more explosive.”
In 2013, the 49ers will return the one-two punch of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter, all the while, infusing a spark plug with James. For San Francisco’s innovative staff, this is the player they will need to get real creative with.
Niners offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, can let his imagination run wild as James evolves into the team’s X-factor. This season, the 49ers will be able to deploy him like a weapon in two of three phases of the game.
With that in mind, today’s NFL is about space, and James might be San Francisco’s best open-field runner.
Receiving: The Darren Sproles Prototype
Even though LaMichael James is slightly taller, heavier and faster than his NFL comparison, his game, and thus his potential, most closely resembles New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles.
Given their compact build, rare explosiveness and cutback ability, there is certainly a likeness between the two.
With that said, the staff in San Francisco has the fortune of looking at the body of work Sproles has put together as a blueprint, which will ultimately assist them in drawing up a model to optimize James’ particular skill set.
One of the ways Sproles, 29, has distinguished himself from the other tailbacks in the league is as a pass-catcher. The Saints have purposefully schemed to get the 5’6”, 190-pounder the ball in space.
With a sub-4.5 40-time and a low center of gravity, Sproles has been problematic for defenses, akin to James during his tenure at Oregon. After seeing how his physical tools translated as a rookie, the 49ers need to turn their focus toward utilizing No. 23 in the passing attack.
Darren Sproles receiving facts:
- In 2011, he was the team’s third leading receiver (86-710-7), behind TE Jimmy Graham and WR Marques Colston.
- In 2011, Sproles was No. 2 on the team in targets (111).
- In 2011, 97 percent of his receiving yards came after the catch (690 of 710).
- In 2011, he averaged 82.1 all-purpose yards per game, which was among the league’s best.
- In 2011, his 86 receptions were good enough for No. 7 in the league, making him the only running back in the top-15 in said category.
- In two seasons with New Orleans (29 games played), Sproles has 2,224 yards from scrimmage and 17 touchdowns.
- In 2012, Sproles topped All-Pro WR Larry Fitzgerald (Cardinals) in receptions and receiving touchdowns.
- His career all-purpose yards (14,231) are fifth among active players, ranking only behind Steve Smith, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Tony Gonzalez.
- Sproles holds the NFL single-season record for all-purpose yards with 2,696 (2011).
Evidently this style of player can be dynamic in a receiving role, and as Sproles has demonstrated, it is sustainable over time. Also, the comparison is even more applicable, as both backs operate within an attack-by-committee, which is what necessitates the creativity in ball distribution.
Like head coach Sean Payton does with Sproles, the 49ers must optimize his reps on the field by moving James around like a chess piece. By mobilizing him before the snap, San Francisco can identify and exploit favorable matchups.
In various packages, it will also permit the offense to have either Frank Gore or Kendall Hunter on the field with the scat back. This will enable the 49ers to be productive while making sure their resources are not wasted due to a talented roster.
With a little strategic planning, San Francisco can utilize the depth to add yet another dimension to their high-volume offense. Going forward, the onus will be on offensive coordinator Greg Roman to design innovative methods that will get James the ball in space.
For starters, route combinations drawing coverage away from the play and visible mismatches at the line of scrimmage will help the former NCAA standout to showcase his talent as a dynamic open-field runner.
In 2013, the 49ers will want to split him out wide as a receiver, line him up in the slot and even throw to him out of the backfield.
As a rookie (four games played), James executed a lot of basic hand-offs, like counters, draws and a little read-option work. In his second season—which should be his first full 16-game campaign as a pro—he will be capable of much more.
With a knack for keeping his pad level low and following his blockers, San Francisco may develop their screen game around James. His athleticism will make him an asset in variations of the concept, including middle screens, swing screens and jailbreak screens in the flat. The shovel pass might even make a comeback.
This will enable James to get behind the team's giant, bruising offensive line and use his shiftiness to advance the ball downfield, as seen here (play ends at 3:36) in Week 17 versus the Arizona Cardinals last season.
In an effort to get him extra touches in the passing attack, there is reason to believe that James will develop as a route-runner out of the backfield. As a player that gets to the perimeter in a hurry, he may see success with wheel routes, which have a place in San Francisco’s system.
This will stretch defenses out and enable James to get behind the opposition.
Also, with his short-area quickness and acceleration up field, the Texas route—a former West Coast staple—may make a triumphant return as James’ bread and butter. In a zigzag motion that funnels the RB behind the linebackers, it is a great method of hacking away at a defense with the potential for big plays downfield.
The bottom line is, the 49ers want to get James touches, and there lies serious potential in the passing attack. He will provide a safety net for quarterback Colin Kaepernick, while adding another layer to San Francisco’s offensive unit.
Rushing: A Perimeter Dynamic & Unique Element in the Read-Option
If LaMichael James wants to earn meaningful reps as a rusher, it is on him to bring an element that the No. 1 and No. 2 backs don’t possess. He will have to prove that there is at least one thing—no matter how miniscule—that he does as well, if not better, than Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter.
Undoubtedly, within that triangle of tailbacks, James shines as the pocket rocket of the group.
He has burners that Gore and Hunter don’t have, making him the perhaps the most dynamic edge threat on the roster. With his straight-line speed and lateral agility, James can bounce runs outside the tackle box in a flash.
As a ball carrier that excels around the edge, the 49ers are going to give James plenty of counters, stretches, off tackles and an array of tosses. His flair for breaking runs to the perimeter and wearing defenses down from sideline-to-sideline will be awfully advantageous.
On game day, there is also a chance that James sees noticeably lighter boxes than his two running mates that sit higher on the depth chart.
In a recent study from Pro Football Focus, analyst Khaled Elsayed reviewed running backs receiving fortunate versus unfortunate looks from defenses. In layman’s terms, it revealed which players were dictating heavier defensive fronts on average.
As it turned it out, the more durable, three-down backs were getting the box stacked against them. In fact, Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter are both charted in the top-5 “unluckiest,” having seen the most loaded fronts in 2012.
At the other end of the spectrum, Darren Sproles (Saints)—a shifty relief back and the constant in this hypothesis—is the No. 1 luckiest back in the league. Of 76 running backs with 45-plus qualified carries, he played during the most DB-heavy looks.
It shows that Sproles has changed the way defenses play the Saints, as he’s affected the thinking of defensive coordinators by making them put more speed on the field to stop him.
As he receives more field time, LaMichael James may trigger a similar effect, which would inevitably add a wrinkle to this offense. If the 49ers can dictate lighter boxes with their personnel, they can create more underneath production with the potential to turn plays up field.
Since he fits one extreme of Elsayed’s study, James is fully capable of being among the top-5 “luckiest” next season. As a result, San Francisco may benefit from the defensive packages his presence demands.
If James has value in another facet of San Francisco’s ground attack, it is in the recently developed read-option.
Again, this comes back to his physical ability—specifically his top-speed in tandem with Colin Kaepernick’s. When James is the running back executing that fold of the offense, his 4.4-speed can be used in either the passing game or the running game, and that is hard to defend.
As an improvisational play backed by elite athleticism, San Francisco’s zone-read may flourish with James lining up in the backfield. The threat of a game-breaking run to either side may unsurprisingly cause a lot of defensive breakdowns.
With the evolution of the 49ers offense, this may be LaMichael James’ ticket to more carries on Sundays.
Special Teams: An X-Factor as a Home Run Threat
After a three-year stretch that began in 2010, the front office ultimately decided that it would not be bringing Ted Ginn Jr. back this season. Considering Ginn’s role as the return specialist, this has spawned an open competition on special teams.
According to Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News, LaMichael James is “confident he can become the 49ers’ top return specialist,” and is in fact “gearing up for that role” in 2013.
Assuming he wins the job, the 23-year-old speedster will have an opportunity to employ his game-breaking ability in another phase for San Francisco.
Again, the coaches want to find ways to get him touches without limiting Gore and Hunter. However, James’ explosiveness cannot go to waste on the bench.
This coming season, he will have an opening to carve out a role as a returner and solidify his place there going forward. Since he is still in a developmental stage with Gore as the starter, this could be his niche for the next two seasons.
In limited time fielding kickoffs in 2013, James finished with 14 returns for 417 yards (29.8 YPR). This average ranked him third in the NFL behind players that had 15-plus returns, trailing only Percy Harvin (35.9) and Jacoby Jones (30.7).
While LaMichael James may be the third wheel in San Francisco, he is the one that spins the fastest. There is the expectation that he will have an increased role going forward, which is justifiable considering that the team spent a high second-round pick on him only a year ago.
The key to his expanded role is to have him doing different things than Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. The 49ers and their offensive staff, headed by coordinator Greg Roman, want to take advantage of his unique skill set to add a layer to their unit.
With his explosiveness, James is a player they want to see get touches because, on any given down, he can make a house call. The conceivable big-play potential he has is as high as any other offensive weapon on San Francisco’s roster.
Therefore, in an attempt to generate more points, the 49ers will work toward finding different ways to get James’ hands on the football. Between kick/punt returns, rushes and receptions, the 49ers want to get him in proximity of 15-20 touches per game.
Update: RB LaMichael James endorses this message.
Dylan DeSimone is the San Francisco 49ers' lead columnist for Bleacher Report. A former NFL journalist and fantasy football writer for SB Nation, Niners Nation and SB Nation Bay Area, Dylan now writes for B/R.
To talk football with Dylan, follow him on Twitter @DeSimone80.