Here at Niners Nation, we're presenting a series called "90-in-90". We'll be looking at every player on the 49ers offseason roster, one player per post, from now until the start of training camp. Technically there are only 89 players currently on the roster right now, and we know it's not exactly 90 days until camp ... but "90-in-90" just sounds too cool to get caught up the in details!
The San Francisco 49ers caught plenty of people off guard during the 2012 NFL Draft when they selected Oregon running back LaMichael James in the second round. People could buy into the decision because of James' athleticism, but it took some time to see the pick start to pay off. James was inactive for the first 13 weeks of the regular season as the 49ers were content dominating the run game with Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter.
However, that changed after Kendall Hunter went down with a torn Achilles. Brandon Jacobs got his opportunity as Gore's primary backup, and proceeded to rush four times for six yards in a 16-13 loss to the St. Louis Rams. The following week, Jacobs was deactivated and James was activated.
Although Frank Gore remained the main running back, James showed the spark many people expected of him when he was drafted. Over the final four regular season games, James averaged 7.5 offensive touches per game as the 49ers figured out ways to work him into the game. He also returned 14 kickoffs, as Ted Ginn was proving ineffective and Kyle Williams had also been lost for the season.
Why he could improve in 2013
The sky may not be the limit for James, but given what we saw in four regular season games and three postseason games, his potential is impressive. If Kendall Hunter is slow returning to form after his Achilles injury, James takes that No. 2 role and potentially runs with it. Even if Hunter is back to 100 percent for the season, James will continue to get plenty of opportunities alongside him. Although he only played in seven games, James has now had a full year of learning the 49ers offensive system. Odds are good that he should be able to improve upon his 2012 performance, beyond just the basic counting stats. The 49ers have the whole offseason to work James further into the gameplan.
Why he could regress in 2013
Any potential regression would come in two areas: fumbles and developing as a punt returner. James had a couple fumbles last season, and while it did not strike me as a "problem", it's always something to consider with young players. If he can avoid any sort of fumbilitis, he should be able to build on his 2012 offensive success.
James was given preseason opportunities to work as a punt returner, and generally struggled with it. He took over the kick return job from Ted Ginn, and will likely get another opportunity at both return jobs in 2013. It's not the end of the world if he does not work out as a punt returner, but I'd be a bit disappointed. The more a single player can do with success, the better, in my mind.
Odds of making the roster
Slim .... just kidding. James is not going anywhere, and we'll see what kind of touches he is looking at in 2013. He will be a big part of the 49ers offense given his experience in Oregon's diverse offensive attack. The big question is how the 49ers will use him AND Hunter behind Frank Gore. Last year, James did not get his first touches until after Hunter was lost for the season.