Few backfields in the NFL are as talented or crowded as the 49ers. Frank Gore has been a fantasy stud for years now, and Kendall Hunter has emerged as a solid handcuff behind him. The 49ers also brought in Brandon Jacobs this offseason. With all this talent, there’s a lot of uncertainty around James’ draft stock next year.
It’s important to remember that the 49ers took James in the second round of the draft. If they didn’t intend on using him significantly this year, then they absolutely would not have drafted him that early. They had other needs, but they took James because they really wanted him.
There is no doubt that James will, at the very least, emerge as the 49ers third down back. Third down backs typically don’t offer a whole lot of value in leagues unless they are PPR, but James has the potential to offer a whole lot more than that. He has a completely different running style than every one of the 49ers other running backs, so they may try to use him in a change of pace role on running downs as well. If James can run between the tackles in the NFL, then the 49ers will likely use him to spell Gore. The problem is they already have Kendall Hunter for this.
The real detriment to James’ value is Hunter. Since he was so successful in the backup role last season, it would be hard to envision James getting more carries than Hunter this season. If anything, the 49ers will use Hunter even more than they did last season. James and Hunter have different running styles, but Hunters’ is more conducive to running between the tackles. Jacobs doesn’t figure to be too much of a factor in James’ production next season. I expect him to be used sparingly in certain short yardage situations and no more.
Those that have compared James to Darren Sproles are correct in a sense. James possesses an explosive quality comparable to Sproles. This does not mean that James will have the kind of fantasy impact Sproles has had however. Last season, Sproles was in a unique situation in New Orleans. Their offense was spread out enough that a third down type back like Sproles could get enough touches necessary to be a real fantasy factor. The situation in New Orleans is not the norm however, and the 49ers won’t be able to utilize James quite the same way.
So where does this leave James’ fantasy value? Unless you’re in a keeper league I would stay away from him in the draft. He was a great pick by the 49ers, but he is too risky as a fantasy option to draft in my opinion. I could be wrong, which is why James is definitely a guy to keep an eye on. If either Hunter or Gore fall victim to injury, James is definitely a guy worth owning.
The 49ers backfield is just too muddled to expect a lot of James next season. In fact, I wouldn’t even expect as much fantasy production out of Frank Gore. With such a crowded backfield, 2012 may not be a great fantasy year for any 49ers running back. I’m staying away from them all.