With the second round pick of the 2012 NFL Draft, the 49ers selected RB LaMichael James out of Oregon. Head coach Jim Harbaugh liked everything about him from his speed and production while in college.
Suddenly at the NFL level, James has been inactive in 16 of 22 possible regular season games, including four out of six games this season. He wasn't active until Week 14 in the 2012 season and started this year with a sprained knee. Despite recovering in time to play against the Rams and Texans, he received most of his carries late in the game. In Week 6 against the Arizona Cardinals, he became inactive as Patrick Willis took his spot on the active 46-man roster.
The question now remaining is what happens to him? LaMichael James deleted a tweet in early October where he indicated that he isn't insurance for the 49ers running backs unit. Anthony Dixon has received more meaningful carries, including two touchdowns this season while at the goal line. It was widely expected that James would be third on the depth chart as Kendall Hunter returned as the backup behind Frank Gore.
Harbaugh defended James, saying he is doing everything right and there is a plan for him. He made a reference to James' deleted tweet about insurance, where the head coach said he is not.
"His development [has] been fine," Harbaugh said on Monday. "He will be back playing. I know the talk about ‘insurance’, etc., and it’s no slight to LaMichael. LaMichael is a very good player and he is a very valuable member of our team. We’ve had a situation where we’ve dressed three running backs on certain games and in certain games we’ve dressed four. But, you know, I definitely, we definitely all value and look at LaMichael as a backup running back, like a two."
While Harbaugh defended the second-year running back, it took him 13 regular season games last year to make his debut after the injury to Kendall Hunter. James has lacked the vision to be a downhill runner thus far, which is something every NFL running back needs.
On Twitter, he had a negative attitude towards his amount of playing time in the future. He tweeted the following statement:
"If I never played another down in my career, I've accomplished more in life then majority of my critics ever thought I would ..."
If James becomes inactive for more than half of the 2013 regular season, he would be viewed as insurance for the running back position. Last year, he scored his first touchdown in the NFC Championship game against the Atlanta Falcons and was most known for his kickoff return against the New England Patriots in Week 15.
In his first game back in Week 4, it was understandable to give James limited minutes as he was coming off his injury. However, the 49ers didn't utilize him until garbage time in Week 5 against the Texans. Kyle Williams remains as the primary kick returner and punt returner despite spectators envisioning James as the first returner.
It won't be about what Harbaugh says, but what he does with the active 46-man roster in regards to James. He should be playing later this season, but if the second-year running back sits out at least eight regular season games, his time could be spent on the bench unless an injury strikes.
"There’s going to come time like last year where he’s fully in the mix and depended on," Harbaugh said. "That time will come again. He’s doing a good job. I know he wants to play. He wants to be contributing and when he is dressed, he is contributing and doing that.”