49ers 2020 training camp: One battle to watch for each position

San Francisco 49ers during training camp (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
San Francisco 49ers during training camp (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images) /
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Richie James, 49ers
Richie James Jr. #13 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images) /

Which position battles are most crucial for the 49ers during 2020 training camp?

While COVID-19 has offset how the San Francisco 49ers would have otherwise held their organized team activities in 2020, it’s looking more and more like this year’s edition of training camp will be more or less similar to what the team goes through any other year.

That’s a good thing.

For the defending NFC champions, the upcoming season is more about maintaining continuity and dominance. There isn’t a lot of room to get better, at least in comparison to the down years between 2015 and 2018, and there weren’t exactly a ton of open roster spots this offseason, either.

While San Francisco’s projected 53-man roster is mostly set, at least in terms of the starters and immediate role players, there are a number of battles to monitor when training camp kicks off later this summer. A few positions have bigger question marks than others, of course. Yet there will be some noteworthy battles to watch at every position.

And remember, depth can be just as crucial as an impact starter.

In this pre-training camp breakdown, Niner Noise looks at each position on the Niners roster and evaluates the top battle to watch at that specific position.

Kicking things off on special teams, where the return duties are in question.

49ers Special Teams: A Potent Return Specialist

The past two seasons, wide receiver Richie James has shouldered the vast majority of kickoffs and punt returns. There were explosive moments, yes, particularly that one 2018 game against the Seattle Seahawks in which James enjoyed a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

But James has had his misses, including putting the ball on the ground last postseason. And one can see why James might also have an uphill battle making San Francisco’s 53-man roster this season, too, especially considering the new bodies brought in at wide receiver.

One of those, rookie wideout Brandon Aiyuk, has return experience. So does wide receiver Trent Taylor, who’ll look to bounce back from a missed 2019 campaign due to injury, which could negate James’ prospects for returning punts.

Getting in on special teams might also be the last best hope for third-year wide receiver Dante Pettis, who all but disappeared from head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offensive game plan last year. Pettis was a prolific returner in college, so cementing himself in this role might be the only way the receiver gets back into Shanahan’s good graces.

Simply put, the return job for the 49ers in 2020 is wide open.