At this point, 49ers fans have no idea what the team has in mind for LaMichael James.
James, once a game-breaking running back at Oregon, is buried on the 49ers’ depth chart, which inevitably leads to speculation that the team will soon get rid of him.
In a story this past weekend by Chris Wesseling, an Around the League writer for NFL.com, James’ name is listed No. 8 among the top 10 players on the trading block this summer.
“Left out of the 49ers’ running back rotation even before the arrivals of Carlos Hyde and a relatively healthy Marcus Lattimore, James has seemingly been on the trading block for a year now,” wrote Wesseling. “We suspect he hasn’t been moved because no team is willing to part with a mid- to late-round draft pick for an underwhelming scatback.”
Wessling points to the Eagles and Cowboys as possible landing spots for James, with Philadelphia a logical team because of head coach Chip Kelly, who coached James at the University of Oregon.
But James is a valuable, talented player. Even though James likely won’t get many snaps in the backfield this coming season – with Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Lattimore and Hyde also in the picture – James proved himself a dangerous return man in 2013. The 49ers likely won’t deal James if they don’t believe someone else on the roster can do that job.
Last season, James averaged 10.9 yards per punt return and 26.8 yards per kickoff return. His work returning punts and kicks over the second half of the season consistently gave San Francisco much better field position than in the season's first half, when Kyle Williams was the No. 1 punt returner.
According to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, 49ers GM Trent Baalke has denied reports the team has tried to deal James this offseason.
“LaMichael did an excellent job for us a year ago and it’s his job along with the running back position,” Baalke told Branch recently. “So we don’t feel an urgency to go out and replace LaMichael at all. I’m very, very excited about what he brings. First year as a punt returner averaging over 10 (yards).”
James’ work was big in several games, including the 49ers’ final regular-season game in Arizona and a playoff victory in Green Bay in January. James had 41- and 37-yard kickoff returns in those games to set up crucial scoring drives.
After the win in Green Bay, head coach Jim Harbaugh called James’ return work against the Packers in cold, windy conditions “a blue-collar effort on his part.”
Now, after sitting out the first three weeks of the team’s offseason program to remain in his native Texas, James is back in the Bay Area and participating with his teammates, reported Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.
The job returning kickoffs and punts will remain James’ for now – until, perhaps, fourth-round rookie draft pick Bruce Ellington proves he can be as good or better. Ellington at South Carolina was a very good kick returner (23.1 average in 2013) but not so skilled as a punt returner (just three for 16 yards).
With organized team activities (OTAs), minicamp and training camp still to go, it seems unlikely that the 49ers would deal James now, without knowing they have a replacement. A much more likely scenario would be to deal James late in training camp in August – or keep him in a 49ers uniform again in 2014. He may not get much action in the backfield, but James can be a big-time playmaker on special teams. And in the competitive NFC West where every point counts, James’ worth in his return role is enormous.