Does Trent Baalke sit in his office and watch LaMichael James‘ Oregon highlight tapes? Does he see something in James, or more importantly the personnel of the San Francisco 49ers, that the rest of us aren’t seeing? Do Baalke and the rest of the Niners’ front office simply value James’ return abilities?
There are more questions than answers surrounding the future of James in San Francisco, and it’s clear that he hasn’t fulfilled the role that he was meant to play when the Niners spent a second-round draft pick on him in 2012. He’s played an extremely limited role in the offense and in 2013, he was relegated to being a special teams contributor.
James himself has implied that he’d like a fresh start elsewhere as he realizes that he’s stuck behind Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter in a crowded backfield.
In 2014, that backfield will only get more crowded as running back Marcus Lattimore is expected to be added to the fold. Lattimore, who the Niners essentially redshirted in 2013 due to his crippling knee injury suffered in his senior season at South Carolina, is a more optimally-built back for the tough running style that the Niners rely on to wear down opponents. If James thought he was buried on the depth chart in 2013, 2014 figures to be complete nightmare for him.
The primary reason that Baalke wants to hang onto James is that, simply put, he’s a cheap date. James is set to earn just $641,718 in 2014, a marginal hit to the Niners’ already capacious cap number. But if he’s just going to be used on special teams, where he’s been far from electric, wouldn’t it be best for both parties to let him go?
One crazy idea that might actually make sense would be to release James and select his former running mate De’Anthony Thomas in the sixth or seventh round of May’s NFL Draft. They’d save over $200,000 in cap space, and they’d acquire a guy who was widely considered to be one of the best athletes in college football over the past few years.