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Should the San Francisco 49ers Really Trade LaMichael James?

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Should the San Francisco 49ers Really Trade LaMichael James?
David Goldman

On Wednesday, April 16, Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee broke a report that the San Francisco 49ers are working the phones with the intentions of trading third-string tailback LaMichael James. Shocking, considering that this news comes only two months after general manager Trent Baalke assured the 2012 second-round pick would not be traded.

But the NFL is a business and things invariably change, sometimes overnight.

Was James shocked to hear the news? Not in the least bit.

Can the 49ers pull back from here? Unlikely. The relationship is utterly tarnished.

They’ll have to move him come hell or high water, even it means dumping him on another ballclub for next to nothing. It’s unfortunate for all parties involved. James lost out on part of his pro career and the 49ers are missing out on a playmaker simply because he doesn’t fit the offense.

Nevertheless, it appears this ship will indeed sail. Let’s take a look at the brief history and all the moving parts that has San Francisco in this predicament.

 

What Brought Us to This Point?

Paul Sakuma

For the most part, LaMichael James has shouldered a lot of the blame, superfluously. Some point to his small stature, tap dancing behind the line, ball-security issues and even his cryptic antics on social media, which, in the way they are perceived, are truly in the eye of the beholder.

But hey, the former Heisman runner-up received just 39 total carries in two whole seasons (active for 14 out of 32 regular-season games). There’s hardly a body of work to judge, though that hasn't stopped anybody.

Added to which, San Francisco’s clear lack of interest in getting such a high-profile player and draft pick involved would have rubbed anyone the wrong way. James has been the star all his life.

It was only after Kendall Hunter tore his Achilles in 2012 that James was activated to the game-day roster, appearing in four regular-season games. He carried 27 times during that period, finishing with a 4.6 yards-per-carry average, which included multiple long runs. This was solid output in a time of need, especially when you consider the run system did not at all cater to his skill set.

He played in the playoffs as well (5.9 YPC) but was less of a factor in his sophomore campaign, when many thought he would make a leap.

His already low amount of carries were actually cut in half.

In 2013, James had just four attempts against Houston and broke one of them for 11 yards, finishing with a 7.8 yards-per-carry average. He had two carries versus New Orleans and had a long run of seven yards. Later in the season, he netted two carries versus Tampa Bay and ripped one for 21 yards, finishing with an 11.0 YPC average.

And that was about all she wrote. James received handoffs in just five games (12 total attempts), still boasting an average of 4.9 yards apiece. And that was without having the fortune of catching a rhythm (reading a defense, learning tendencies and setting up the next run).

In his shortened career with the 49ers, he had long runs of 11, 13, 17, 21 and 26 yards in very limited regular-season touches, per ESPN. His big-play highlights also include the 62-yard kick return in 2012 on prime time versus the New England Patriots, setting up the comeback and game-winning touchdown.

Marcio Jose Sanchez

There was also his read-option carry versus the Atlanta Falcons that went for a touchdown, which was the clear turning point in the 2012 NFC Championship Game.

Nevertheless, there was never an attempt to assimilate James into the offense or evolve the system around his unique skill set. He is a finesse rusher who was supposed to open up the run game and aerial attack by giving it a player who could bolt outside the numbers on tosses, stretch plays, pitches and off the read-option.

And from the minute he was drafted, James was also projected to be a dangerous screen and check-down weapon, akin to former New Orleans Saints and current Philadelphia Eagles tailback Darren Sproles.

"They already have Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon," former Super Bowl winning head coach Jon Gruden said, analyzing the pick at the 2012 NFL draft. "But LaMichael James is different. Can they use him like a Darren Sproles in the passing game?"

This question was inevitably answered, as the offense never changed and James was mothballed.

According to Pro Football Focus (via CSN Bay Area), the 49ers only ran five screen plays to halfbacks all season, which was the second fewest in the NFL. Many pointed to the hulking offensive line as a power unit, one that does not excel at finesse plays like screens, which require downfield blocking. 

That’s a big reason the offensive staff never worked to structure a package around James. Although yours truly doesn’t believe an offensive line with three first-round picks and a versatile swing-tackle-turned-guard is limited to straight power football and nothing else.

It’s just something they need to work at, like the Saints do tirelessly.

Building on the case for James not being integrated, many have even pointed to the shortcomings of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who does not quite excel as an underneath thrower. Reporter Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area raised an interesting note:

Two former NFL quarterbacks recently suggested – neither wanted to be quoted –Kaepernick might spend too much time in the weight room bulking up his upper body. Being too muscular could make a quarterback tight and mechanical, which would have a negative impact on touch passes.

Kap has struggled with the short part of the field, both seeing it and delivering the football.

So, all in all, we’re seeing a total lack of schematic compatibility, an unwillingness from the staff to change, coupled with the fact that the 49ers have an all-timer and workhorse in Frank Gore blocking James’ path to the field. Not to mention, a potential starting-caliber backup in Kendall Hunter.

 

The Fan Theory

Jeff Chiu

Many of the diehards believe LaMichael James simply wasn’t a good player in practice and never showed enough to be willing to get reps. That’s interesting, in theory, and even if somewhat true, it probably doesn’t tell the whole story. You don’t cut a player loose before knowing what he can offer in games.

The 49ers still don’t know. All they know is he doesn’t fit the system.

Therefore: (1) He cannot be compared to wideout A.J. Jenkins. He was bad in practice and bad on the field, but the team still forced him on the field, seeing what he could do. James was never forced into the lineup in that manner. (2) Superstars, while they fine-tune their game in practice, are created on the gridiron in live action.

Players like Kurt Warner, Tony Romo, Tom Brady, James Harrison and Victor Cruz lingered on team’s depth charts, coming in as late-round picks or going undrafted. Some were practice-squad players, but the one thing they have in common is they were defined when they got on the football field.

JAMES A. FINLEY
Had Kurt Warner never stepped onto the field, he never would've become Kurt Warner.

And these are just a few names—the list goes on.

If you believe superstars are made on the practice field, then you might have Mark Sanchez as your starting quarterback. Furthermore, if you don’t believe James might become something if and when he arrives at his next destination, look at what teams drafted Brett Favre and Steve Young, for instance.

It wasn’t the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers.

A systematic fit is everything in professional football. If you don’t fit, it’s harder to play. And if you’re also coming in at a stacked position with proven guys ahead of you, you can all but forget about getting into the lineup, no matter how talented you are. Experience often trumps theoretical upside.

 

Should the 49ers Part with LaMichael James?

In short, yes, they should.

The 49ers clearly aren’t going to use LaMichael James, and he deserves an opportunity to get his NFL career started. All the information we have available leads us to believe this was a botched pick from the get-go; largely a miscommunication between the front office and coaching staff.

Baalke, with every fiber of his being, wanted to deploy a three-headed approach with some diversity. And by all intents and purposes, the 49ers offensive staff simply wasn’t willing to budge from its between-the-tackle power approach. This is what Baalke said, per Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:

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.

Pro Bowler Frank Gore is still carrying the load, averaging 272 carries per year under the Schembechler-esque regime of coach Jim Harbaugh, via Pro Football Reference. In fact, even Hunter’s workload has tapered off from 2012-13, as the offense has continued to ride No. 21 into the ground on a weekly basis.

Even though they’re bringing in backs to prepare for life after Gore, they won’t distribute carries in the meantime. 

And stylistically, all one has to do is look at the style of backs Harbaugh had at Stanford and the glowing light in which he held pedestrian players like Owen Marecic. The 49ers head coach likes powerful grinders. He’s never had a back like James, nor does that prototype fit his system.

James being good or bad hardly played in. The team wasn’t willing to find out.

Clearly, it was a pick that should’ve never been made. The 49ers and LaMichael James are at odds and it’s now time to cut the cord. In being fair to the player, the only solution is to trade him to another team that has room on the roster and a system more compatible to an East-and-West, open-field runner.

 

Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference, unless specified otherwise. Timeline information provided by Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area

 

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