Shortly after the 2012 NFL Draft, San Francisco 49ers fans could barely contain their excitement. Their team had performed yet another successful draft, on paper. Two of the biggest names to come out of that draft for San Francisco were 1st round pick, A.J. Jenkins and 2nd round steal, LaMichael James. These names surprised a lot of people (Jenkins was seen as a reach and James was another running back in what was seen as an already crowded backfield), but head coach Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Balke had reached rock-star status in San Francisco; they could do no wrong.
But fans were left scratching their heads when half the season had already passed and neither had even dressed for a game yet. It looks like coach Harbaugh was just keeping these cards up his sleeve for just the right time.
A couple of key injuries and some untimely tweets later, it has become time for Jenkins and James to show why Harbaugh and Balke took a flyer on them.
With Kyle Williams going down with a season-ending injury and Mario Manningham missing time, A.J. Jenkins played in his first game last weekend against the Miami Dolphins. His snaps were limited and he finished with no catches. Jenkins’ size and speed make him a nice option as a slot receiver, but he also has big play potential as a deep threat.
There was doubt whether or not LaMichael James would even make the team in August, when people wondered how we would fit into a backfield with the likes of Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Anthony Dixon and newly signed Brandon Jacobs. Oh how things have changed.
Gore looks as good as he ever has, but age is still a factor and part of why he is playing so well now may have a lot to do with the success of the running backs behind him. He hasn’t had to play every single down or barrel into the line to pick up short yardage like in years past. Three quarters of the way into this season, and Frank the Tank is feeling a little more fresh than usual, and looking like it, too.
So what has lead to LaMichael James finally seeing time behind all these backs? Well, Hunter suffered a season-ending injury in week 12, a devastating blow as he was putting together a solid sophomore season. He served as Gore’s main back up during the season to this point. Dixon has established himself as more of a special teams contributor and goal line back. Finally, after a disappointing season so far, Jacobs was finally suspended by the 49ers for the remainder of the season after publicly displaying unhappiness with his role with the team.
All of this lead to James seeing his first action of the season against the Dolphins last weekend, and he looked good. He showed great speed, vision and patience while racking up 30 yards on eight carries, not to mention one catch for 15 yards. However, another aspect of his game was displayed as a kick returner. He returned three kickoffs for 79 yards, including a 34 yard return.
Look for James to have an expanded role in the back field and in the return game, especially if the 49ers lock up a playoff spot anytime soon. Jenkins still has a lot of work to do before we might see him catching passes.