If anyone had LaMichael James mocked to the 49ers with the 61st overall pick, tip of the cap to you.
No one saw this one coming. Offensive line, defensive line, defensive backs, even wide receivers were ranked higher on most everyone’s San Francisco board. Curiously though, an ESPN graphic showed that Mel Kiper thought the 49ers needed a running back. He had the running back position ranked higher than offensive line, defensive line, and corner. But the infinite wisdom of the ESPN draft experts is another story. Why on Earth would this team need a running back, especially in the second round?
On the roster already, the 49ers have Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Anthony Dixon, Brandon Jacobs and Rock Cartwright.
Cartwright figures to be strictly a special teams player, so the competition for running back is ultimately between Gore, Hunter, Dixon, Jacobs, and James.
Frank Gore, the 49ers’ all-time leading rusher, should carry most of the load. He amassed 1,211 yards and 8 touchdowns last year while staying healthy. Health has always been the biggest concern for Gore, and the 49ers were lucky that he remained relatively injury-free throughout last season.
Hunter, a fourth round pick in 2011, showed promise as a change of pace back last season, totaling 473 yards and averaging 4.22 yards per carry. Harbaugh and the 49ers’ coaching staff effectively used the 5-foot-7, 199 pound back on the edge and as a backup for Frank Gore.
Dixon was a disappointment after being selected in the sixth round of the 2010 draft. A supposed goal line, power back, Dixon has not proven effective in that role after scoring only two touchdowns last season. As a result, former New York Giant Brandon Jacobs, was brought in on a one-year, $1.577 million dollar deal, $150,000 of which is guaranteed. With the signing of Jacobs, a proven power back with 7 touchdowns last year, Dixon already figured to be the odd man out.
Now the competition gets even more interesting. James, a 5-foot-8, 190 pound running back from a high-speed spread offense, enters into the mix. Under head coach Chip Kelly, James rushed for over 5,000 yards and scored 53 touchdowns in three seasons as a Duck. Jim Harbaugh knows James all too well as he ran for 257 yards and three touchdowns against Harbaugh’s Stanford Cardinal in 2010. James certainly has the statistics to be a top-tier running back, but his size is an issue.
He doesn’t have the build of an every-down running back, so teams viewed him as a complement heading into the draft. Harbaugh and Baalke don’t view him that way.
“He’s proven he’s a multi-down back in our eyes,” Harbuagh said of James in the press conference following the pick.
Huh. That has to make you wonder. Everyone compares James to Darren Sproles, but maybe a more accurate comparison is Warrick Dunn. Dunn, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, was 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds for most of his career and he still put up a career average of 4.1 yards per carry and scored 49 touchdowns. That’s pretty good production from a guy who’s supposedly undersized.
During his career at Oregon, James showed time and time again to be pretty tough for a small running back. He doesn’t just utilize his amazing speed and quickness to evade tackles – he breaks them with strength, too.
If you don’t believe me, look at how many of his great runs feature broken tackles and not just speed:
At about 5 minutes in, look at how he lowers his shoulder against the Arizona safety.
He doesn’t think of himself as just a speed back. He thinks he has power, too.
Granted, the NFL is a completely different story. Safeties won’t bounce off like that on Sundays. However, James has the mentality of a tough running back, and that’s something you can’t teach. Even if he is small, he didn’t have the injury trouble of many undersized backs in college. Plus, the one serious injury he did sustain (a dislocated elbow against Cal), he bounced back from very quickly.
Most guys don’t come back from an injury like that any time soon. James was back in uniform, with a brace, two weeks later. That tells me he doesn’t just have the mentality of a tough guy, he actually is a tough guy.
At Oregon, James also served as a punt returner and kick returner. Although he was not the primary return man, James did average 10.7 yards in his 13 punt return attempts, scoring one touchdown. Ted Ginn will be the primary return man, but James — along with Kyle Williams *shudder* and A.J. Jenkins, for that matter — could act as an apprentice to Ginn and serve as the 49ers’ return man for years to come.
The moral of the story is that although the 49ers may not have needed a running back, James was the best player available and Harbaugh and Baalke clearly think they got a guy who can develop into an every-down type of runner and maybe a solid returner. Gore’s health is always an issue and Hunter and Jacobs combined apparently aren’t a good enough backup in the minds of Harbaugh and Baalke.
Harbaugh is very well-acquainted with James, evidenced by the fact that James and the 49ers had no contact after the combine until Harbaugh called him when the 49ers were making the selection. Maybe the 49ers didn’t think James would even be there, or maybe Harbaugh knew exactly what he was getting. Either way, the 49ers passed on perhaps more pressing needs to get a guy who does have a big upside.
The 49ers may be a “smash-mouth” running team, if you will, but nothing says Harbuagh can’t use James differently from Gore and adapt the offense accordingly. One has to think that with the 49ers using their first two picks on speedy, big play guys, Harbaugh may already be moving in a slightly different direction, anyway.
If James puts on a little muscle and maintains his speed, toughness, and tenacity, the 49ers may have found a gem in the second round. Plus, even if James doesn’t develop into Gore’s replacement, the competition at running back is going to be intense this year, and that will only make the whole team better.
Now that San Francisco has added to their offensive speed, it’s time to get some depth on the offensive and defensive lines and add defensive backs for security. They accomplished the former in the fourth round, taking offensive guard Joe Looney from Wake Forest.
Oh, one more thing, James will have to give up his number 21 that he wore at Oregon because Gore already owns that number in San Francisco. James would look good with a 28 on his back, Warrick Dunn’s former number, as long as he can pry it away from Rock Cartwright.