2nd-year RBs: LaMichael JamesTuesday, July 16, 2013
This is Part 8 in my 10-Part Second-Year Running Back Series, using NFL Game Rewind to analyze each sophomore back's rookie-season tape. For the Lamar Miller, David Wilson, Bryce Brown, Vick Ballard, Bernard Pierce, Ronnie Hillman, and Daryl Richardson writeups, click here:
The 49ers used the 61st pick in the 2012 draft on 5-foot-8, 194-pound Oregon back LaMichael James, just over three months after Darren Sproles stung San Francisco for a playoff-record 15 receptions, 189 all-purpose yards, and a touchdown in the 2011 Divisional Round. James was a healthy scratch for 12 straight games to open his rookie season. With Brandon Jacobs waived and Kendall Hunter on injured reserve with a torn Achilles' tendon, James finally broke into the lineup in Week 14.
Serving as Frank Gore's change-of-pace complement, James wound up touching the football just 43 times on offense, including the postseason. He brought back 14 regular season kickoffs, registering a 29.8 yards-per-return clip that would've ranked third in the NFL behind Percy Harvin (35.9) and Jacoby Jones (30.7) had James handled enough kicks to qualify.
James' 2012 offensive usage was limited enough that I incorporated four of his toughest-competition college games (@ LSU, @ Stanford, vs. USC, vs. Wisconsin) into this tape review. Gore turned 30 years old in May, and I want to have a strong feel for whether James is capable of operating as a lead back should the 49ers' starter break down. These were my takeaways after reviewing James' performance in 11 games, and charting all of his NFL rookie-season touches:
James was a classic-case "run bouncer" at Oregon, generating his big plays by stretching runs toward the sideline and utilizing his 4.45 footspeed to outrace defenders to the edge. You could argue the 49ers played to that strength during James' rookie season. I charted all 38 of James' carries, and marked a whopping 65.8 percent of them as "outside" runs. James was most often used on left-end sweeps, running off Joe Staley's backside.
On perimeter plays, James was dangerous only when the 49ers' run blocking was effective enough for him to stick his foot in the ground and cut upfield. He was ineffective when the blocking didn't spring him into space. 17 of James' 43 touches (39.5 percent) gained two yards or fewer. When plays to the outside were well defended, an east-west-moving James became a sitting duck for defenders knifing downhill, prone to lost yards and thoroughly ineffective touches.
It's also possible -- even likely -- that the 49ers used James so sparingly between the tackles because they identified him as a weak inside runner. There were certainly signs of that. He wasn't a strong inside runner at Oregon, and James ran with tentativeness and overt caution between the tackles as a rookie. James demonstrates terrific burst and acceleration when holes are opened -- he's capable of eating up grass quickly with a lane -- but there isn't much physicality and certainly no power to his game.
Both on Oregon and 49ers tape, I noticed James opt to turn out of bounds rather than back upfield when he approached the sideline. He sometimes pinballed off defenders, but otherwise displayed no real tackle-breaking skill. James' overall skill set suggests he would struggle to sustain offense if granted an opportunity play the role of feature back in an NFL rushing attack.
Straight-linish and not particularly elusive other than when using foot quickness to weave through traffic, James lacks explosive lateral movement and came off strictly as an up-field accelerator dependent on his team's blocking. He certainly can't create his own running room with lateral shake. James has some big-play ability simply because he runs fast, but his overall running makeup is quite limited. After a full rookie-year review, I found Rams sophomore back Daryl Richardson (breakdown here) far more impressive than his division rival.
James' NFL sample size obviously remains small after one season, and there is reason to believe he can improve. Based on my impressions of James after this 11-game review, however, I do not expect the 49ers or any other NFL team to ever commit to him as the foundation of their running offense. I think he is what he is, and that's a kickoff returner and change-of-pace back.