When the 49ers drafted former Oregon All-America running back LaMichael James, they gushed about his college career and his potential in the NFL.
After drafting James and Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, Niners GM Trent Baalke said: “What we’ve tried to do is add speed and explosiveness to this offense and to this football team. With these two picks we’ve done that.”
Jenkins never did, but James, the 5-foot-8, 190-pound playmaker, did -- on the rare occasions he was allowed to touch the football.
Although he’s carried the ball just 39 times over 14 regular-season games in two seasons, James has a 4.7-yard average per carry while also averaging 9 yards on just five receptions. He’s also been an explosive returner of both punts (10.9 average) and kickoffs (28.4).
Which is why it will be a shame for both the 49ers and James if the team decides to part ways with the player who was taken in the second round of the 2012 draft.
Seemingly, the coaching staff should have been able to find more opportunities for James to make plays, even with the presence of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter in the backfield.
Yet now, as the 49ers have begun their offseason conditioning program, James is on the outside looking in.
James’ agent Jeff Sperbeck told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch this week that his client will not participate in the offseason program. Instead, James will continue his own offseason conditioning work in Texas, where he is from. This follows reports by the Sacramento Bee that the 49ers are trying to trade James – and that James would welcome a change of scenery that would allow him to play.
James in the past has expressed frustration about his playing time with the 49ers, particularly about being viewed as insurance in case either Gore or Hunter were lost to injury.
“Some things I just don’t understand at all,” James tweeted last October. “I don’t work at State Farm. I’m not trying to be insurance.”
Now, as the 49ers head toward the draft and a new season, the backfield is even more crowded, with second-year pro Marcus Lattimore healthy and ready to contribute along with Gore, Hunter and James.
Still, it will be a shame to see James thrive elsewhere in the league if the 49ers do find a taker for him.
As he showed down the stretch in 2012 after an injury to Hunter, James can make plays in the NFL. Over the final four regular-season games of that season he made some big contributions, and he continued his solid play as the 49ers advanced to the Super Bowl. Against the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game, he carried five times for 34 yards and a TD. And in 2013 James ranked 10th in the NFL in punt returns, averaging 10.9 yards per return.
If the 49ers can trade James before the draft, they will be able to find a replacement for his kickoff- and punt-return duties.
But even with a solid replacement at those positions, and a healthy and effective Lattimore in the mix for 2014, it seems like a failure on the 49ers’ part that they haven’t been able to use James more effectively since they drafted him.
According to Pro Football Focus, as cited by Bleacher Report, James has played just 137 offensive snaps in two seasons (including playoffs), by far the lowest snap count of any running back taken in the top three rounds of the 2012 draft.
As a Niner, he never really got a chance to show what he can do.