At Oregon, running back LaMichael James was a dynamic star. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
In the first two days of the NFL Draft, the 49ers have played the speed card.
Niners General Manager Trent Baalke pulled swift wide receiver A.J. Jenkins out of the deck Thursday in Round 1, then dealt himself another ace Friday in Round 2 with former Oregon running back LaMichael James.
Two days, two playmakers, two athletic offensive players who can stretch a defense.
After leaning heavily on defense in 2011 to produce a 13-3 record and an NFC West championship, the Niners this offseason have kept their defense intact while grabbing a pair of free-agent wide receivers in Mario Manningham and Randy Moss, then getting Jenkins and James in the draft.
Clearly, Baalke, coach Jim Harbaugh and Co. are adding some blue streaks to their team’s blue-collar personality.
“He’s a playmaker, and he’s done it against the best in college football, which is hard to do,” said Baalke of James.
Adding a fast, dynamic back such as James to a talented and crowded backfield that already includes Frank Gore, Brandon Jacobs and Kendall Hunter indicates the 49ers are looking for home-run hitters in this draft, not just pieces to fill needs. The receiving and running back corps suddenly are crowded – and much more talented than they were three days ago.
Fighting for playing time will be tough, but emerging from the crucible of competition will likely be an offense that has the chance to be much more dynamic in the 2012 season.
“It’s going to get real real, and it’s going to get real, real fast,” Harbaugh told reporters Friday about the impending competition – and speed – introduced to his roster.
Added Harbaugh: “It’s great to have these options. You’re fighting and building at the same time. That’s what we’re doing.”
In James, the 49ers add a player who can run the ball, catch the ball out of the backfield, return kicks and play special teams. The 5-foot-8, 190-pounder from Oregon is a compact package of speed and surprising strength. At Oregon he ran for a school-record 5,082 yards and 53 touchdowns in three seasons and in 2010 finished third in voting for the Heisman Trophy.
“What we’ve tried to do is add speed and explosiveness to this offense,” Baalke told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. “And with these two (picks), it’s done that.”
Baalke’s draft strategy the first two days deserves an “A” for his effort to add the best players available rather than to target, for instance, the vacant right-guard position.
It could turn out of course, that neither Jenkins nor James can play.
But the strategy is sound. Add speed. Add playmaking. Add competition.
“It’s like poker, right? It’s a full house,” Baalke said at a news conference Friday night. “In poker a full house is a good hand. (James) allows you to carry an extra guy just because of his versatility. … It creates competition. We’re not afraid. We never back down from that. Our guys know that.”
The 49ers have four remaining picks to make in this draft, two in Round 4 and one each in Rounds 5, 6 and 7.