General manager Trent Baalke is reportedly at it it again. This time it's selling, with the Niners looking to unload their second-round pick from two years ago in the person of running back LaMichael James.
No one's questioning that the team is shopping the former Oregon star, so the real question becomes: What can the 49ers reasonably expect in return for James, and what can NFL teams in turn expect for that investment?
As Eric Branch of SFGate.com reports, a number of sources are reporting that the 49ers are actively shopping the 24-year-old.
This did not appear to be news to James himself:
When old news become new news— LaMichael James (@LaMichaelJames) April 17, 2014
That jibes with a report from Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, who writes that James hasn't been shy about wanting a bigger offensive role.
It does, however, fly a bit in the face of what Baalke told reporters at the combine in February, according to Barrows.
“LaMichael is a 49er," Baalke said. "He’ll continue to be a 49er.”
Even then though, Baalke conceded things hadn't gone as planned with James in San Fran, per Barrows:
It's tough. There are certain game plans where LaMichael was meant to play a little bit bigger role than he ended up playing, but that's the game. Every game you go in with a plan and sometimes that plan changes based on what you're seeing and what the other team is doing. So you've got to be flexible. It's up to LaMichael and it's up to every player. We tell every one of our players this: 'It's up to you to earn time on the field.' So it's not as much about what he hasn't been doing, it's as much about what Frank [Gore] has been doing.
Frankly (sorry, couldn't be helped), it's difficult to really gauge James' value to an NFL team, because we've barely seen him in the NFL.
The 49ers all but certainly didn't spend a second-round pick on James in 2012 to give him 44 offensive touches in two seasons. He was going to be the complement to Gore. The lightning to the veteran's thunder.
After all, James had gashed defenses at Oregon for over 5,000 yards on the ground over his career. James rushed for over 1,800 yards, averaged over seven yards a carry and scored 18 touchdowns in 2011.
Per CFB Stats
The year before? He had 1,731 rushing yards and 21 scores on the ground.
Heading into the 2012 draft, Rob Rang of CBS Sports wrote, "Even for those who witnessed his blur-quick footwork and the where-the-heck-did-he-go elusiveness, there is much more to James than meets the eye."
After the 49ers drafted James, Mike Mayock of the NFL Network said, "Keep in mind he's a third-down change-of-pace guy who can hit you a home run. The 49ers didn't generate a lot of yards on offense, and this guy gives them the ability to hit a home run from anywhere in the park."
Yes, at 5'9" (maybe) and 195 pounds, no one expected James to be a 25-carries-a-game running back.
No one thought he'd end up on a milk carton either.
James fell completely off the map in San Francisco, buried behind Gore and Kendall Hunter on the depth chart. As NFL fits go, it was the worst-case scenario for James.
The 49ers are a power-running football team that gets a lead and then pummels their opponents into a pile of goo. Gore and Hunter are both excellent fits for the scheme.
James? Not so much. The snaps on offense just haven't been there, and even when they have, many of the play calls smacked of square pegs and round holes.
This isn't a knock on the 49ers. Some players just don't fit some teams, and with Marcus Lattimore (another between-the-tackles bell cow) set to join the team in earnest after a "redshirt" rookie year, James is going to be buried even deeper down the depth chart.
There have been some brief flashes in the few chances James his gotten. His 4.7 yards a carry is respectable, although the sample size is small. James fared even better than that in the 2012 postseason, averaging 5.9 yards a carry and scoring his only NFL touchdown.
James also fared pretty well as a punt returner in 2013. His 10.9 yards per return a year ago ranked inside the top 10 in the NFL among players with 20 or more attempts.
That success in the return game denotes that James remains a dangerous player in the open field. Throw in James' ability as a receiver, and it's not hard to imagine a best-case scenario where James becomes a faster version of Danny Woodhead of the San Diego Chargers.
A poor man's Darren Sproles, if you will.
What is LaMichael James' trade value?
Of course, James has also had issues putting the ball on the ground, dating all the way back to his time in Eugene. In just those 44 career touches, James has three fumbles, and he put two more punts on the ground last year.
Those fumbles didn't help endear James to the San Francisco coaching staff, and while it's theoretically a "fixable" problem, it isn't going to help James' trade value any.
And talented or no, that value could use all the help it can get, because right now, the 49ers would be looking at the draft pick equivalent of a bag of Cheetos in compensation.
It's not even really about James per se. There just isn't a big trade market for running backs period.
Given what James has (or hasn't) done to this point in the NFL, the 49ers probably aren't sniffing that.
As Bleacher Report's Dylan DeSimone points out, the most likely scenario may involve James becoming part of some draft-day wheeling and dealing next month:
Can't imagine the #49ers net anything for LaMichael James. Best bet to unload him is as a sweetener in a trade up on draft day, IMO.— Dylan DeSimone (@DeSimone80) April 17, 2014
If the price is no higher than that, then some team will come calling. James was a top-10 prospect at his position on many draft boards just a couple years ago, and there are plenty of NFL clubs who don't have San Francisco's depth in the backfield.
Whether that change of scenery will jump-start James' career remains to be seen, but at this point, it looks like both sides are going to test the theory out.