LaMichael James’ tenure with the San Francisco 49ers has been tumultuous at best during his brief career in the NFL. He has often be under used by the by the Niners and when he is used, they telegraph exactly what the play is going to be. For all of the credit that the Niners’ offensive coaching staff get, they have not found out a creative way to get the ball in his hands to make use of his game breaking speed in the open field.
His lack of playing time and production has frustrated a lot of different people, including himself. His presence on the team has polarized many in the fan base, with nearly everyone either wanting James to see an expanded role on the or see him traded or released. Many of those fans that want to see go are turned off by his supposed ranting on twitter about his role on the team.
Bay Area Sports Guy had an article that covered all of James’ tweets that seemed to display his unhappiness with the situation in San Francisco. The tweets appear to display his frustration over his lack of playing time and that the two would be better served by parting way. He then followed up each tweet by sending out a tweet stating that he doesn’t tweet about football. Despite his assertion that the tweets did not reflect football, many in the fan base were annoyed by the tweets and that has been a major factor in their negative bias towards the young running back.
The whole situation seems to be coming to a head in the near future, as rumors have been flying around recently. Rumors are coming out that the Niners are looking to potentially trade James prior to or at the draft. These rumors have seemed to be confirmed by the fact that James has stayed back in Texas to train, instead of joining the team for the first week offseason workouts. The rumors have seem to have taken a hit recently, as general manager Trent Baalke stated that the team is not planning on trading James.
Despite Baalke’s reassurance that James is not being shopped, there has to be some substance to these rumors. They have been floating around for too long for there to not to be any truth. This brings up the question, are the Niners giving up too early on James?
That question comes down to two areas for the team to consider. First, the team needs to think that James still has the potential to grow into an NFL caliber running back. The jury is still completely out pointing to one way or other, simply due to the fact that James only has 39 carries in just 14 games played over a two season period.
The Niners’ backfield is loaded with talent, as they had workhorse running back Frank Gore and then back ups Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon. This offseason, Dixon’s spot is being filled by second year running back Marcus Lattimore.
Gore gets the majority of the snaps, as he is too valuable a pass blocker to not keep on the field on passing downs. The reserve backs do not see many snaps, which creates a problem dividing up the remaining snaps among the three.
Theses limited snaps are hindering the development of James, as he needs legitimate game experience to develop his game to NFL speed and standards. His stats show that he has shown flashes of success by averaging 4.7 yards per carry, but he only averages a little under 3 carries per game. James was highly prolific in college and one has to think that with some more consistent carries that he should the reason he was selected in the second round.
That brings up the second part of the equation, which is are the Niners willing to evolve their offense to become more dynamic. The biggest problem with the James and Niners’ partnership is that James is a poor fit for the Niners’ offensive philosophy. The Niners are a power running team that likes to attack the interior of the defense before taking shots over the top, while James is better suited for an offense that creates space and emphasizes one on one match-ups.
That is one of the reasons that he has not seen consistent success, as the Niners often try to attack the perimeter with James in the backfield and opposing defenses know that. They are able to cheat outside and prevent him from turning the corner upfield.
The Niners need to become more dynamic in how they use James and attack both inside and outside, while also getting him involved in the passing game with screen and swing passes. They can also use him spread out in the slot as a receiver. It would be similar to what the New Orleans Saints did with Darren Sproles and what the Eagles did with Brian Westbrook.
I believe it is too early to give up on James as an NFL caliber player, but if the Niners are unwilling to adjust to his unique skill set then it is time to see if they can get anything of value for him. It would free up a roster slot for a much deeper or vital position, while also giving James a chance to have a more successful career in an offensive system that better suits his skill set.