The line of succession seems fairly clear in the San Francisco 49ers’ backfield. Frank Gore is entering the final year of his contract and is only beginning to show the signs of age. He only had three 100-yard games last season but still managed to play three-quarters of the team’s snaps and was still effective.
Behind him, Marcus Lattimore is one of the most exciting prospects for 2014, with head coach Jim Harbaugh expecting great things out of the former South Carolina star. It remains to be seen precisely how and when Lattimore will take over the majority of the workload, but the general plan has him set as heir apparent in the backfield.
Elsewhere in the backfield, Bruce Miller looks set to be the starting fullback once more, while Anthony Dixon proved his versatility filling in at the fullback position, as well as contributing on special teams. When Gore hasn’t been available, Kendall Hunter has been the go-to backup.
With those pieces in place, the 49ers’ backfield looks ready for 2014.
The odd man out, then, is LaMichael James. What is James’ future role with the team, if any?
When James was drafted out of Oregon in 2012, expectations were high. James was to add explosiveness and speed to the offense. General manager Trent Baalke said as much about James and fellow early draft pick A.J. Jenkins, while Harbaugh praised James’ playmaking ability and speed.
Expectations were through the roof.
Since then, James has been involved in exactly 137 offensive snaps, including the postseason. He’s carried the ball 39 times for 184 yards and added another five receptions to his total. He only hit double-digit snaps in one game in 2013. He’s been slightly more involved on special teams, returning 49 punts and kickoffs in two years, but it’s a far cry from how he was originally billed.
What James has added to the team is some special teams consistency. The 49ers started out very poorly last season with Kyle Williams averaging only 5.1 yards per punt return. James more than doubled that in his time returning punts, and he improved on Williams’ kickoff yardage, as well.
If James does remain with the team, then he’s going to have to accept that his current role is likely to be the peak of his contribution to the team. He certainly still has that explosiveness in space, but for one reason or another, the team has opted not to use him on offense. That usage isn’t going up with Lattimore’s addition to the active roster.
Whether you agree with the decision or not, it seems James will never live up to the second-round billing he received in 2012
The team can certainly afford to keep James around, as he’s still on his rookie contract. He’ll only count a little more than $900,000 against the salary cap in 2014, so even if the 49ers just unleash James fully as a special teams threat, they’ll be happy with his contract.
The issue, rather, is roster space—do they keep James and drop Dixon or Hunter to make room for Lattimore? Do they consider keeping all the running backs together, using six or seven valuable roster slots on running backs alone? That would leave the team weak at other positions.
That might be why speculation has started to spread about possibly dealing James to another team for another draft pick. Considering his stellar college career, James still probably carries more trade value than any of the other lower-tier running backs on the roster. If they’re struggling to find room for all of their running backs, more ammunition in the draft could be an attractive option for the team.
Who would want James?
The first name that readily comes to mind is Chip Kelly, coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and former coach of the Oregon Ducks when James was a star in college. James would be an upgrade over Bryce Brown as the second running back on Philadelphia’s squad, and he would be a piece already familiar with Kelly’s style of offense.
Assuming San Francisco could get a plan in place for the return game—a big assumption, considering how it struggled to fill the position at the beginning of the season—a swap of James for a late-round pick would make sense for both sides. It would give San Francisco even more freedom to make moves on draft day, while loading Philadelphia up with someone experienced at running its hurry-up style of offense.
That lack of an answer in the return game is a major caveat, however.
James has been the best answer on special teams for years now, and there isn’t a clear answer already on the roster. The most likely scenario which would lead to a James trade would probably be if the 49ers were to take a player in the 2014 draft who could return kicks.
If you see the 49ers taking someone like Odell Beckham out of LSU with their first-round pick, you could then see a draft-day trade of James to a team not enthused with any late-round running backs. It’s not a move that’s likely to happen before San Francisco has a returner in mind, however—it’d be too risky of a move.
Will we see James on San Francisco’s final 2014 roster? My gut says no—the team will find an answer to the returner situation somewhere else. That could open the door for teams interested in a shifty back in space to make the 49ers an offer.
Keep an eye on the return game situation as it develops this offseason.