Saturday, April 28, 2012

LaMichael James - A 49ers luxury pick, or a need for speed?

Even for a team as complete as the San Francisco 49ers, there was much discussion leading up to the draft about needs.  The 49ers lost Adam Snyder.  With young Daniel Kilgore waiting in the wings as an unproven commodity, right guard was definitely a need, right?
How about cornerback, the only position in their defense that could have been described as a weakness, given the way Eli Manning took apart the secondary in the NFC Championship?
Or perhaps defensive end, because Justin Smith is probably on the tail end of his career, despite the defensive player of the year-type 2011 season he enjoyed.
Need-shmeed.  The 49ers built this team up by using the past couple drafts and free agency so that they could draft in 2012 for luxury. Apparently, it’s speed that Trent Baalke considers to be luxurious.
The 49ers surprised a lot of people (myself included) when they used their late second round pick to draft Oregon running back LaMichael James, one of the most prolific runners out of the NCAA in recent memory.  Following the pick, they traded their third rounder away to the Indianapolis Colts for a fourth rounder this year and a fifth in 2013, ending the first two days of the draft with some shiny new weapons for their offense, and five prospects to be named later. (Note: Since writing this, the 49ers made a number of trades backwards and ended up drafting guard Joe Looney out of Wake Forest in the 4th round of the draft.)

Need for speed

Without further ado, let me introduce you to the 49ers newest running back.  Through 3 years at Oregon, James rushed for 5,082 yards. In 2011, he ranked third overall in the NCAA with 2012 all purpose yards, averaging 182.91 yards per game.  In 2010, he rushed for 1731 yards and 21 touchdowns, and in 2011 he rushed for 1805 yards, 18 TDs and a 7.3 yard average, despite missing time with a dislocated elbow.
James's downside?  His size.  At 5'8", 194 lbs, most teams don't consider him to be an every down back.  No problem for the 49ers, though.  Apparently that's just fine with Harbaalke. 

Why I'm scratching my head

I expected that the 49ers would take a running back in this draft, I just didn't think that LaMichael James would be the guy.  Frank Gore, after enjoying a Hall of Fame-type career with the 49ers, is getting a little long in the tooth.  I would be surprised if there was anything more than one more productive year left in the 49ers' backfield work horse.  San Francisco drafted a similar, small running back in Kendall Hunter last year, and that had LaMichael James nowhere to be found on my draft board.  The logical decision would have been to draft Gore's eventual successor, a running back with enough size and durability to handle a Gore-sized work load.  But yet again, we're reminded that Trent Baalke rarely sides with the logical, and who really knows what he plans to do with James at this point.  Draftniks don't seem to think that an all-small backfield will work.  Apparently the 49ers believe otherwise.
Many believe that the 49ers already had their scatback in Kendall Hunter, however Joey McMurray (of Bay Area Sports Guy and The Flurry) feel that James is more Warrick Dunn than he is Darren Sproles.  If this is true, the 49ers may well be set at the position of tailback. 

Why I'm jumping for joy

I've been condemned for loving the splashy moves, and what can I say?  When you're tucked away in San Francisco, a place where your teams find themselves ignored more often than not, it never hurts to make a little noise.
It doesn't get much splashier than this in the second round of the NFL Draft.  If James was 3 inches taller and 20 lbs heavier, he would have perhaps been the first running back taken, even over Trent Richardson.  Although he wasn't the most sought after running back prospect, he was still a show stopper in college, turning heads every time he touched the football.
Between AJ Jenkins and James, the 49ers have added a whole different level of giddy-up to their offense.  James has been touted for his burst and vision; that, mixed with his 4.37 40, must have had Baalke convinced that there is something special in his new toy (257 yards and 3 touchdowns against Jim Harbaugh's Stanford Cardinal in 2010 didn't hurt his cause either).
The 49ers now have a unique mixture unlike any other team in the NFL right now.  They are returning one of the most stifling squads in the history of the NFL on defense - 11 players with speed, discipline and ferocity.  On offense, their ability to spread the field should be uncanny.  LaMichael James, Kendall Hunter, AJ Jenkins and Randy Moss bring a whole new definition of fast to a team that has never really been considered speedy.  Alex Smith should have weapons o'plenty in the 2012 season, as the skill positions are now stocked to the point of overflow.
Speaking of overflow, is the 49ers backfield too crowded now?  Anthony Dixon is probably on his way out, and it never hurts to have too many playmakers, especially when you're playing with the casino's money.  Just ask Harbaugh.
"It's like poker, that's a full house," he said.  "That's a good hand, right?"

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