49ers 2020 ‘Who Is?’ series: Chris Finke a special teams ace?

Chris Finke #10 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Chris Finke #10 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

Undrafted 49ers rookie wide receiver Chris Finke stands a better shot to make the 53-man roster with Richie James hurt.

San Francisco 49ers rookie wide receiver Chris Finke just saw his chances to make the 53-man roster improve slightly.

This, due to the Niners losing their return specialist from the last two years, wide receiver Richie James, suffering a broken wrist during an informal practice session earlier this offseason.

Finke, who went undrafted out of Notre Dame in 2020, joined San Francisco on a three-year UDFA contract worth up to $2.3 million, made a name for himself the last two seasons with the Fighting Irish, putting up solid numbers on offense:

Chris Finke Receiving & Rushing Table
*2015Notre DameIndFRWR000
2016Notre DameIndSOWR101012212.220001012212.22
*2017Notre DameIndJRWR13610217.00000610217.00
*2018Notre DameIndSRWR134957111.725204.005459110.92
*2019Notre DameIndSRWR114145611.14221.004345810.74
CareerNotre Dame106125111.887223.10113127311.38

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 6/22/2020.

But the 5-foot-9, 184-pound receiver, who was nicknamed “The Slippery Fox” in college, also made an impact on special teams as a return specialist, returning 73 punts and at least 20 the last three seasons, averaging 8.2 yards per return in the process.

If Finke wants to make an immediate impact with San Francisco this season, it’s likely this will be his route to do so.

Why Chris Finke improves with 49ers in 2020

Finke earned his nickname for a reason. One of the things standing out about him is his shiftiness and difficulty to bring down in tight spaces. While he ran a 4.57 40-yard time at the NFL Scouting Combine, his short-area quickness is what makes him unique.

The cutting ability is what stands out here. And you can get the idea of just how difficult a tackle he can be in the video below:

Don’t let his frame fool you either. Finke is noticeably tough and doesn’t shy away from contact, even though his best attribute is making defenders miss.

They often do, especially on the first tackling attempt.

Why Chris Finke regresses with 49ers in 2020

Finke was limited at the combine due to a hamstring injury, and staying healthy is going to be something of a concern for a player his size.

True, the Niners have gotten by with short-statured players before, such as wide receiver Trent Taylor. But Taylor has also dealt with his share of injuries at the pro level. It’s possible Finke could be on a similar trajectory.

On top of the health factor, Finke’s straight-line speed is merely OK, and he won’t win any footraces with faster defensive backs. While making the first defender miss is always a good trait, it’ll be difficult for Finke to acclimate to the faster, more technically sound defenders he’ll face at the NFL level.

Chances of making the 49ers’ 53-man roster in 2020

James’ injury creates a better opportunity for Finke, that’s for certain. While the Niners seemed content to let James handle return duties last season, there’s no guarantee he would have secured this job again entering 2020. And that was before he suffered his wrist injury, which is expected to sideline James for two months, so one can see how the door just opened for Finke a little more.

Still, it’s going to be a long road for Finke to stick around, at least his rookie season. There’s going to have to be some explosiveness, particularly in the return game, where Finke displays that kind of agility and elusiveness which stood out so much during his Notre Dame days.

Depending on James’ availability this preseason, it’s likely Finke sees a good chunk of opportunities on special teams in the exhibition bouts leading up to Week 1 of the regular season. Perhaps a few moments in the second half of preseason games on offense, too.

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While Finke is certainly on the weaker side of the roster bubble, and placement on the team’s practice squad is a strong likelihood, some explosive returns and playmaking moments could push The Slippery Fox into a position where he lands a spot on an otherwise crowded wide receiver depth chart.