The San Francisco 49ers welcomed running back LaMichael James to their offseason workout program last week, and he is now on hand for OTAs. According to Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh, LMJ missed the first portion of the offseason workout program because he had a newborn.
Through the first two days of OTAs, LMJ is in the mix for a decent amount of work for now. Carlos Hyde is out of town for the NFLPA Rookie Premiere event, and Frank Gore is mostly getting his work done in the morning. According to Jim Harbaugh, Gore is doing his workouts in the morning, but not taking part in the practices at this point.
All this has resulted in LMJ, Marcus Lattimore, Kendall Hunter and Jewel Hampton splitting carries. Of course, LaMichael James is very cognizant of what all this means. As he told the media on Wednesday, he realizes that the regular season will probably be an entirely different story in the rushing game. But he also recognizes the value of getting in his practice time:
“It does me no good to not be a part of something I love to do. I’m not going to be a guy who lets my teammates down over a personal issue. I’m going to work hard."
He remains the primary return man on the depth chart. He gets little playing time at running back in the regular season, and while that is frustrating to him, he does still have a role with this team, and he seems to recognize the nature of his situation. He wants more playing time, but he is realizing the business side of things is not going to make things easier.
Of course, with a little over three months left until the regular season, the 49ers could very well find a replacement for James, and eventually trade him away. Bruce Ellington arrived with some return credentials, and reportedly got some work at the return spots in rookie minicamp. According to Kevin Lynch, Darryl Morris and Quinton Patton got work on Wednesday at the return positions.
If the 49ers can find somebody they trust by the end of August, maybe then they turn around and deal away LaMichael James. If they do not find somebody they trust, then it would not surprise me to see James stay with the team and handle those return duties.
In the meantime, he is more or less resigned to his situation. He wants greater opportunities, but as that quotation above would indicate, he realizes he's stuck in this situation. I view this as a clash of philosophies to some extent. Trent Baalke has talked about wanting a three-headed monster. LMJ's only significant opportunity however, came when Kendall Hunter was lost to an Achilles injury. He looked solid then, but nothing much has happened since.
While LMJ is the primary return man, he remains a fairly limited option in the running game as long as this group remains so deep. Maybe he gets dealt before the start of the season. Maybe he spends the season returning kicks and punts. I still think the team ends up trading him before the 2014 regular season gets started, but I think it will take some time. If a deal gets done, I could see it happening later in the preseason once the 49ers are sure they have one or more replacement options in place at the return positions.