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49ers minicamp: LaMichael James looking sharp as punt returner

LaMichael James handled a lot of punt return work this week at minicamp. This would seem to be his best chance at a roster spot.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

One question mark heading into training camp is the future of running back/return man LaMichael James. He has been unhappy with his opportunities as a running back, and trade rumors started percolating earlier in the offseason. LMJ missed the early part of the offseason workout program, but he did eventually report, and was there for the OTAs and mandatory minicamp.

LMJ got work at running back during minicamp, but he also spent a good deal of time during special teams drills working as the punt returner. The group varied at times, but he and Bruce Ellington were two of the regulars. Perrish Cox got some punt return work on Tuesday, and Thursday saw LMJ, Ellington, Quinton Patton, and Devon Wylie all working on it.

After practice, Jim Harbugh praised the entire group, but while watching over the two days I was at minicamp, LMJ looked the strongest. That is not surprising given that he has the most NFL experience (aside from Perrish Cox), but I also think he actually looked improved this time around. He looked very comfortable handling punts, whether it be waiting back on a ball, or charging forward for a shorter punt. There's nobody coming down at him, and there was no significant wind to worry about, but it's certainly better than struggling with drops.

The 49ers have a lot of decisions to make up and down the roster. If LaMichael James is far and away the best return option, it very well might not matter that the team has no plans to use him as a running back. They've shown a willingness to keep special team specific players, and given the importance of a sure-handed punt returner, maybe that's his ticket to the roster. I do still think if Ellington can prove himself as a viable returner, the team could look to trade LMJ during the preseason. Perrish Cox has punt return experience, but I still think his roster chances are up in the air if Jimmie Ward and Darryl Morris prove themselves in August.

This all could leave LMJ as the guy with the last seat when the music stops. He's getting work as a running back, so maybe offensive adjustments could lead to more work for him there. But even if not, providing the team with confidence as the punt returner would be big for him.