LaMichael James is one of the greatest players in Oregon Ducks and Pac-12 history, and the former third-place Heisman vote-getter is heading to the 2012 NFL Draft after wisely deciding to skip his senior season. It now becomes time for Ducks fans to wonder what type of career he will have in the NFL, because there is a sort of taboo on undersized running backs becoming feature backs in an NFL offense, especially when they come from a spread offense in college.
A look at his college statistics shows that production obviously is not an issue, and he would actually be a late first round/early second round pick based on his statistical merits. James averaged 6.6 yards per carry on 771 carries in college and consistently found a way to get to the end zone. James was one of the best running backs in the country during his three college seasons, but some question his durability despite the production over a large sample of carries.
Running backs who are 5’9″, weigh 185 pounds, and aren’t able to power through defenders are often scrutinized by scouts for their lack of strength. One big hit could knock a smaller, quicker back out for a season. LaMichael James relies on his ability to elude defenders, and he can’t shake off a safety on a consistent basis. This is the biggest hole in James’s game, according to most scouts, and it is the reason why he is only viewed as a complimentary back at the pro level.
Blitz pick-up is a topic that isn’t talked about often with regards to running backs, but it’s an important asset for a back in the NFL to have. James is a horrible pass protector and gets thrown into the quarterback far too easily. Most young backs struggle with helping out their quarterback from a raging pass rusher, and this lack of proficiency on James’s part will not have a huge effect on his draft stock. It is, however, a flaw in his game that needs to be worked on.
Most comparisons involving LaMichael James have him linked with Darren Sproles, but I have seen some people compare him to LeSean McCoy. The problem with the latter comparison is that McCoy is a better pure rusher, because James doesn’t fight for extra yardage as much as he should. He has good vision and anticipation and waits to break off a long one, but he also needs to keep moving to get as much extra yardage as he can.
Likewise, the Sproles comparisons don’t do LaMichael James nearly enough justice as a running back. Both players are extremely elusive and have untouchable speed, but James is stronger and better at moving the chains as a back. He is somewhere between both backs talent-wise and should be drafted by a team who is willing to take advantage of his explosiveness out of the backfield, as a returner, but also realize that he is capable of making things happen carrying the rock.
LaMichael James is a top 50 draft prospect overall and is a second rounder given his skill, production, and uncertainty as a running back at the pro level. He could be a feature back, but it is best if he is used as a No. 2 back who receives adequate carries and the ability to become a sparkplug for the offense and special teams. James isn’t a Reggie Bush or Warrick Dunn; he is a back who is between those two. James is the middle ground between a feature back who does a little bit of everything and a change-of-pace back who gets seven explosive touches each game.
The injury concerns with the former Doak Walker winner are overblown, because he has no structural damage on his knees, despite some knee problems in college. His elbow injury was a single, isolated event, but LaMichael James isn’t going to be the player who will be able to start in all 16 games each season. However, he should be able to play in 14 (12 at worst).
The whole bias against spread offense running backs coming into the NFL should have been debunked early on with the successes of LeGarrette Blount and Jonathan Stewart in the NFC South. Both of those guys are two of the best and most elusive backs in the league,emphasize elusive, but James is admittedly not as powerful as either of them; it isn’t even close.
Other scouting reports on LaMichael James are both divisive and overly critical to one side of the argument. The truth is, James will most likely end up between both of these sides, which can clearly be seen in the Sproles or Bush vs. McCoy or Dunn comparisons. James is like all four of these backs in a way, but he is his own unique mix of speed, elusiveness, explosiveness, pass-catching ability, and special teams play.
An ideal fit for James is a late second round pick to a contending team with a need for a No. 2 back who can fit him into their offense without pressing him as a No. 1 back or shoving him down the depth chart. Many mock drafts have him going to the Cincinnati Bengals, and this would be an intriguing fit. However, it depends on the organization’s views on the respective futures of Cedric Benson and the underrated Bernard Scott.
If the Green Bay Packers are ready to let Ryan Grant go, then James would be a great fit with the Pack and fit in seamlessly as another weapon on their offense. Another established team like the New England Patriots could select him as yet another versatile weapon in their innovative offense, and it would give Tom Brady another option in the passing game. After all, Drew Brees has his Darren Sproles. James is also a better rusher than Sproles, which means he would be a great addition for a contender with a quarterback in place and a need for another running back in a time-share role (ideally in a back seat role).
The opportunities for LaMichael James to succeed as a pro are there, and he is exactly the type of back that two contenders and one other playoff team are looking for. James can add that extra dimension to the Pats or Packers offense that can get those two teams over the hump in 2012, and it’s time to focus on what James can offer to the NFL, instead of bashing him for his height and focusing on his flaws. He is at least one of the best five backs in this draft class, and James is yet another Oregon Duck with a bright future ahead of him.
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Topics: Bernard Scott, Cedric Benson, Cincinnati Bengals, Darren Sproles, Drew Brees, Green Bay Packers, Jonathan Stewart, LaMichael James, LeGarrette Blount, LeSean McCoy, New England Patriots, Oregon Ducks Football, Reggie Bush, Ryan Grant, Tom Brady, Warrick Dunn