Last season, one of the reasons for the 49ers’ success was the team’s rookie class.
Pass rusher Aldon Smith, running back Kendall Hunter, fullback Bruce Miller and cornerback Chris Culliver all made big contributions, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick was stashed away for the future.
This season, however, Niners’ top picks A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James have been the invisible men.
Jenkins, a wide receiver, was activated for this past Sunday’s game in St. Louis, but didn’t play. James – despite an injury to Hunter in New Orleans the week before – wasn’t activated, and still hasn’t played in a game this season.
Why has head coach Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff been so reluctant to play two skill-position players who put up huge numbers in college? During the draft in April, after all, the Niners were ecstatic to get both.
Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke talked about how Jenkins and James’ speed and play-making abilities would make the 49ers a much deeper and more dangerous offense.
After drafting James, Harbaugh told reporters the former Oregon star is “a multi-down back in our eyes.”
So far, however, he hasn’t played even one down.
Now, Baalke is hinting that James may make his debut this Sunday against the Dolphins at Candlestick Park.
The 8-3-1 Niners, with Hunter out for the season and the receiving corps thinner with Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham hurt, too, could use some bursts of rookie speed.
Speaking on radio Monday, Baalke said:
“I’d say, it’s safe to say that LaMichael is going to start getting his opportunities, and (I’m) confident that he’ll make the most of them.”
With Hunter out last week, offseason acquisition Brandon Jacobs got some playing time, but doesn’t offer the same type of quickness James does.
Niners players say that in practice, James has been used in multiple ways, as a change-of-pace back, as a wideout and slot receiver, and that he’s comfortable in the read-option type of system both he and Kaepernick ran in college at Oregon and Nevada.
On Monday, Harbaugh was asked why James wasn’t used in the overtime loss to the Rams on Sunday and said, according to Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat: “It wasn’t part of the plan yesterday, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be going forward.”
Cohn also wrote on Monday that it’s time San Francisco put Jenkins and James into the mix.
The Niners, he says, can’t afford to let Jenkins and James just sit on the sidelines this year in a “redshirt season.” They need to play.
“You need rookies who can step in and contribute,” Cohn wrote. “If Jenkins and James are not ready to contribute, Trent Baalke did the 49ers a disservice by drafting them. There were plenty of wide receivers would could help the 49ers win the Super Bowl this season – Chris Givens, Rueben Randle, Mohamed Sanu, T.Y. Hilton, etc.
“There were also running backs available who are producing right now – Doug Martin, David Wilson, Alfred Morris, Daryl Richardson, etc.
“James and Jenkins need to contribute.”