As you may have heard by now, LaMichael James suffered a dislocated elbow during a pass-protection drill last weekend. This is the second injury to a 49ers running back in just four training camp practices. However James' injury has a larger impact on the return game than the RB competition, where he was likely not going to be among the top three or four guys, considering the level of competition the team has created.
At this point it had seemed as though James had a firm grasp on the role of return-man, and that would be his path to the 53-man roster. With news of this injury, potentially sidelining James for up to a month, opportunities for others to step-up will obviously be there. The team has to get a few guys in place, if only to handle the return duties during the preseason.
The question I have is whether or not this will open the door for someone to showcase their talents, such that James becomes even less valuable to the team. Think about it. Guys like Devon Wylie and Perrish Cox have gotten some work in the return game, but both may find themselves otherwise displaced from the roster due to their position battles on offense and defense, respectively.
Let's say that the above two guys don't show particularly well at their positions, and mediocre return skills are the only thing they have to hang their hat on. Do the 49ers want to spend a roster spot on someone like that?
What if a guy like Bruce Ellington, a promising young rookie who was going to make the team regardless, shows that he can handle the return-man job? I would think that this would present the Niners with a difficult decision when it comes to LaMichael James.
Perhaps the 49ers look to deal James in a trade, should it come down to a close-call. This seems to be the strategy late in the preseason when the roster is maxed-out, and would give James a chance to perhaps get some play-time elsewhere.
Or will the 49ers sign someone who can take the snaps at fifth or sixth RB and also has some return experience? Perhaps a Mike Goodson, LaRod Stevens-Howling, Felix Jones, etc. In that case, the player would face long odds, just like James, being a RB on a team that, even after Kendall Hunter's injury, has plenty of guys at the position.
As Yoda always used to say, "This time of year, cloudy the Week 1 roster picture is."