Ever since he was drafted in the second round of the 2012 draft, pundits questioned his fit in offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s offense. The questions are warranted based on the fact the Niners have been reluctant to use James in any capacity.
Here’s what 49ers beat reporter Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com had to say about James’ fit at the conclusion of the 2013 season: “James certainly does not appear to be a good fit with the 49ers, who are built to be a power-running team. The 49ers do not believe James has the kind of blazing speed to succeed as solely an outside runner.”
If that truly is the case, why did San Francisco draft him in the first place? It’s not like the 49ers were going to build their offense around James. Frank Gore was coming off of a 1,200-yard season, and the team had just made an appearance in the NFC Championship Game.
As far as I can tell, James was drafted to be a change-of-pace back who could effectively create mismatches out of the backfield. The only problem is the 49ers have been reluctant to give him the chance to properly utilize his skill set on Sundays.
According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), James has only logged 137 offensive snaps in two seasons (playoffs included). That is by far the lowest snap count of any running back who was drafted in the first three rounds of the 2012 draft.
Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, David Wilson, Isaiah Pead, Ronnie Hillman and Bernard Pierce have all logged more snaps than James. That’s a travesty when one takes the time to examine general manager Trent Baalke’s comments prior to the 2013 season, per Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com:
I'm a big believer -- we are big believers -- in a three-headed approach. In other words, having a group of backs that bring to the table something a little bit different than the other one so you can do a lot of different things. But also having those backs be able to do enough things the same so you don't become so predictable on game day.
Despite Baalke's remarks, there seems to be a bit of a disconnect between the general manager and the head coach.
Bleacher Report's Dylan DeSimone told me that he believes head coach Jim Harbaugh didn’t want anything to do with James: “James was 100 percent a Baalke pick, which is odd because you'd think Harbaugh would adore him, having been ripped by him when James was at Oregon and Harbaugh at Stanford.”
DeSimone is right: You would think Harbaugh would value him. In two games versus Harbaugh at the collegiate level, James rushed for 382 yards and scored four touchdowns.
Yet, if we know anything about Harbaugh, he marches to the beat of his own drum.
Even though Baalke drafted James, it’s clear Harbaugh instructed the coaching staff to work Gore into the ground. Why? Because Gore amassed more snaps and carries than he did in 2012.
If the 49ers were sincerely going for a three-headed approach in 2013, Gore would have had fewer carries and James would have played more snaps than he did in 2012. But that simply wasn’t the case.
James averaged 3.2 offensive snaps a game in 2013 and 14.4 offensive snaps a game in 2012. That’s a significant drop-off. Did he specifically do something to warrant a demotion, or did Roman feel more comfortable utilizing players with whom he has a higher level of trust?
DeSimone feels Roman incorporates the star players whom he trusts more: "He [Roman] has not incorporated a single role player that wasn't a star in three years. Every player that excels, excels because they were a first-round pick."
"He hasn't guided any auxiliary players in the right direction or created a role for them. James, with his unique skill set, could've had a tremendous role in the read-option and as a bailout for the often pressured Colin Kaepernick."
Instead of having that tremendous role in the read-option, James was relegated to situational return duties. Over the course of 10 regular-season games, he fielded 23 punts for 251 yards and 12 kickoffs for 321 yards.
By no means were the numbers mind-blowing, yet they did garner high marks from the folks at PFF. He received a plus-2.8 kickoff return grade and a plus-1.4 punt return grade.
Surely, James would have liked to have had a bigger role outside of his special teams contributions, but there’s no getting around the fact that he doesn’t fit San Francisco’s plan of attack on offense. He’s an outside runner who hasn’t earned the trust of the staff to bang between the tackles.
Is that his fault? No. Everybody (Harbaugh, Roman and Baalke) is at fault for his ineffective nature. James being stuck in this particular situation is not his fault. He had absolutely no say as to where he went on draft day.
Who knows? He could have went to a team that featured him as a pass-catcher out of the backfield and thrived. We haven't seen enough of him to know what type of player he is at the NFL level.
The only thing we do know is that James’ horrendous fit in Roman’s offense makes him expendable.
Odds are he won’t be cut because of his lofty draft status, but he could end up being a sweetener in a draft-day trade if the 49ers try to move up to secure a player they like on Day 1 or Day 2.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.