Editor’s note: In the lead-up to the NFL draft (May 8-10) bookmark this page to keep tabs on which players the 49ers have had reported contact
LaMichael James has an uncertain future with the 49ers. He is not participating in the team’s offseason program and would welcome a change of scenery, according to a source.
Replacing James at running back is the least of the 49ers’ concerns. After all, he played only 28 snaps last season. Frank Gore (744), Kendall Hunter (190) and Anthony Dixon (80) each saw significantly more action.
And playing time could become even more difficult to achieve this season for James with Marcus Lattimore being added to the mix.
But where James’ potential loss could be felt is in the 49ers' return game. He handled all those duties after Kyle Williams struggled in a Week 8 game against Jacksonville and was waived.
James averaged 10.9 yards on 23 punt returns. The only time he looked shaky was in the NFC Championship game when he muffed a punt. He also averaged 26.8 yards on 12 kickoff returns.
The only other 49ers with previous NFL experience handling punts are cornerback Perrish Cox and receiver Devon Wylie. Cox returned nine punts for the Denver in 2010. Wylie averaged 5.2 yards on five returns for Kansas City in 2012.
If the 49ers look to the draft to fill that spot, there are not a whole lot of options.
“I didn’t see any dynamite returners this year,” one scout told CSNBayArea.com.
LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham, who is expected to be a first-round pick, could be the best option available. In 2012, Beckham averaged 9.1 yards on 35 returns with two touchdowns. Last seaon, he averaged 10.1 yards on 14 returns.
If the 49ers were to move up to get Beckham, his speed could be used to complement possession receivers Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin. And the 49ers could immediately plug him in as a return man.
NBC Sports draft analyst Josh Norris suggested Oklahoma receiver Jalen Saunders, who averaged 15.4 yards on 20 returns with two touchdown last season, as another option for the 49ers. Saunders had an official 40 time of 4.44 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine. His size (5 foot 8 7/8, 163 pounds) is a definite concern.
Also, Norris mentioned running back De’Anthony Thomas of Oregon. Thomas (5-8 ½, 174) would likely have a difficult time getting on the field for the 49ers on offense. And his experience in the return game is more with kickoffs. He had four touchdowns on kickoff returns in three seasons at Oregon. In 2012, he averaged 17.1 yards on 13 punt returns with one touchdown. He did not handle in punt last season.