James' agent Jeff Sperbeck tweeted Monday: "@LaMichaelJames appreciates the 49ers for granting him his release request & allowing him to pursue his career elsewhere."
"I have no comment on the procedure," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "We felt it was in the best interest of our team and made that move and we’ll sign an additional player today."
The news comes a surprise just a day after the team's Week 1 win against the Dallas Cowboys. James had two carries for zero yards and did not return a punt or a kick, which were his primary duties in 2013.
The 49ers used a second-round pick to take James in 2012 and has averaged 4.5 yards per carry on 41 attempts with San Francisco. They used another second-round pick on running back Carlos Hyde in the most recent draft, who has quickly emerged as the No. 2 back behind Frank Gore. Hyde average 7.1 yards on seven carries in his NFL debut in Dallas, including his first touchdown coming at the end of the second quarter.
James has also been usurped as a return man, with rookie fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington handling both punts and kickoffs in the preseason and in the opener. James suffered a dislocated elbow early in training camp, and came back to average 18.8 yards on four kickoff returns. Ellington averaged 25.7 on six.
The former Oregon Duck had been rumored to be dissatisfied with his role dating back to last season, when he saw his use on offense decline rapidly after averaging over 5.0 yards a carry in the 2012 playoffs during the team's Super Bowl run. James suffered a knee injury late in the preseason last August, and didn't play until Week 4. In 10 regular season games, James was given just 12 carries while handing return duties.
Prior to the 49ers' win Sunday, the NFL Network reported strife in the 49ers' locker room, noting Harbaugh might be wearing thin on some players. James' rumored unhappiness with his role over the last two seasons was congruent with the report.
"(The players) have dealt with a lot over the last couple years," reporter Ian Rapoport said on NFL Network Sunday. "Some of the way he's treated them, some lack of respect. And all because they are winning, they are fine with it, but some of the players wonder, if they lose, will it all spiral out of control?"
When asked about the report following Sunday's win, Harbaugh indicated he's had an open-door policy with his players. Monday, he said James was one of his players that spoke to him about his role with the team.
"We’ve had conversations," Harbaugh said. "We did talk about it earlier that we wished LaMichael well in his career and hope for a long and healthy career for LaMichael James and appreciate his contributions to the 49ers, and continue to wish him well.”
James' release means the 49ers have just two running backs on the 53-man roster. Marcus Lattimore opened the season on the reserve/non-football injury list and cannot join the roster until after Week 6. Running back Kendall Gaskins (6'1", 238) is on the practice squad.
Wide receiver and special teams standout Kassim Osgood was re-signed, after being cut twice since initial roster cuts were made prior to Week 1, as the corresponding roster move for James' release.
Osgood becomes the seventh receiver on the 53-man roster. Second-year player Quinton Patton was inactive in Sunday's win in favor of Brandon Lloyd, who did not register a reception. Rookie L.J. McCray and Jimmie Ward played gunner on punt coverage where Osgood stood out in 2013.
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