Over the last few years, the San Francisco 49ers have been characterized as a "run-heavy" offense. Led by five-time Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore, the running game possesses great depth, youth and is equipped with one of the best offensive lines in the game. But sometimes, what's good for the team may not be ideal for an individual…enter LaMichael James.
Since being drafted in the second round of the 2012 draft, James has been frustrated with his limited opportunities. At the time he was drafted the running back core consisted of Gore, Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon. James appeared in only four games his rookie year posting 125 yards on 27 carries. Yet with the 49ers performing as one of the top teams in the league, why change what's working?
Last season, James was limited once again in the running game, but much like his rookie year, the Niners had no need for James to be inserted into the backfield. The team ended the regular season with the third most rushing yards in the league.
In an attempt to utilize James's speed and agility, San Francisco began having the former Oregon Duck return kicks. James replaced struggling return man Kyle Williams and as CSN's Matt Miaocco reported, James ranked 10th in the league with his "10.9-yard average on 23 returns last season."
The third-year pro will once again be fighting for carries this year in what looks to be a crowded backfield. With Gore once again entrenched as the unquestioned starter, James will join Hunter, second year player Marcus Lattimore and rookie Carlos Hyde on the sidelines.
Hunter has proven to be an admirable change of pace back for Gore, accumulating 1,202 yards on 262 carries (averaging 4.6 ypc) with seven touchdowns in three seasons. Lattimore has yet to hit the field as he recovers from his college injuries, but few can deny the unbelievable potential he possesses. Finally Hyde looks to fill the short yardage need, as Dixon signed with Buffalo, and is certainly built to carry more than just a few hand offs a game.
The limited number of carries has made James publicly frustrated at times, however, the fleet footed tailback claims that it's nothing personal and that it's simply his competitive nature.
James told CSNBayArea.com, "I'm a competitor. I want to go out and compete. Whatever it is, catching some passes, whatever, I want to play running back, too. I feel I can do it at the highest level.That;s the only thing that frustrates me."
If James does not improve on his pass protection or show he can successfully run between the tackles and not just rely on his speed for outside runs, the 24-year old will have to fall back on the return game in order to see the field. While James may be the favorite to start the season as the Niners' primary return man, the position will not go uncontested as rookie fourth-round draft pick Bruce Ellington anticipates giving James a run for his money during training camp.
"I think Frank's the best, and I think Kendall is super-good, too. It's nothing against them. But with that being said, am I supposed to be happy just returning kicks and catching punts? No, not really." said James.
Some had predicted that James would be traded this offseason, but with no reports of any imminent or close deals being constructed, it appears as though there is no real market for James.
With training camp under way this week for the veteran players, it will be up to James to prove he has more to offer in the running game and not be subject to only being a return specialist in 2014.
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