49ers depth chart: Who returns punts, kicks for San Francisco in 2020?

Richie James #13 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Richie James #13 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) /

The 49ers have a lot of options to return kickoffs and punts in 2020, but few are proven choices.

For the better part of the last two years, the San Francisco 49ers have featured wide receiver Richie James as the team’s primary return specialist on special teams.

It’s worked, at times, particularly recalling James’ electrifying 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown versus the Seattle Seahawks back in 2018, which helped end a too-long losing streak to the Niners’ bitter NFC West rivals. But James also had his share of gaffes on returns, too, including a near lost fumble against the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV.

That wasn’t a reason why San Francisco lost the big game, but it certainly opened up the idea the 49ers are open to upgrading this unsung-yet-important spot on the depth chart this training camp.

James finished last year returning 20 kickoffs during the regular season for an average return of 21.4 yards, while his punt-return average of 8.0 yards on 33 return attempts was tied for seventh best among qualifiers.

That’s not terrible. And when looking at San Francisco’s average offensive starting field position (the 32.1-yard line, which was third best in 2019), it’s easy to see why James should be a strong candidate again.

But James’ offseason wrist injury, sidelining him for at least two months, puts his already-precarious hold on a roster spot into even more jeopardy. James isn’t prolific enough a returner to guarantee himself a spot on the 53-man group based off his return abilities alone. And while he’s still in the mix to retain these duties again in 2020, there’s a good chance head coach Kyle Shanahan and special teams coordinator Richard Hightower seek other options.

What are they?

49ers’ other options in the return game

James is only one of a number of players San Francisco could potentially call upon to return kicks and punts this season, the others including:

Mostert solidified himself as one of Shanahan’s top running backs, and it’s unlikely the longtime special teams ace will be subjected to more wear and tear in light of his breakout offensive campaign last year.

Aiyuk, the Niners’ second of two first-round NFL Draft picks this year, returned a total of 25 punts the last two years at Arizona State, averaging 11.7 yards per return with a touchdown, going along with 29 kick returns for an average of 27.1 yards.

Like Mostert, though, San Francisco probably won’t want to reserve one of its big-name wide receiver investments to extended duty on special teams either.

That leaves Taylor, Reed and Pettis as likable options, particularly considering none of the three are slated for starter’s duty on offense or defense. In 2017, Taylor recorded a respectable 9.4 yards-per-punt-return average, which was tied for ninth best that season, so one can assume he’s a candidate if healthy.

Reed, who is out indefinitely with a torn pectoral suffered this offseason, returned 11 kickoffs in 2018 for an average of 30.2 yards per takeout. Yet the backup defensive back never returned a punt at the NFL level, and he had just one punt return during his collegiate years.

A last chance for Dante Pettis?

Pettis’ fall from grace in 2019 is well-documented. From a promising starting candidate in 2018, Pettis found himself inactive for Super Bowl LIV, and not even his own prolific collegiate return abilities at the University of Washington could save him from Shanahan’s proverbial “doghouse.”

It’s anyone’s guess whether or not Pettis can rediscover the offensive prowess he enjoyed late his rookie season.

But if Pettis wants to make a mark, reverting back to a prolific punt returner wouldn’t be the worst way to go.

Over his four-year career with the Huskies, Pettis set an NCAA record for most punt returns for a touchdown with nine. Four of those nine special teams scores came in 2017 when Pettis averaged a career-best 20.4 yards per return.

If there was ever a time for Pettis to solidify a role, any role with San Francisco this season, this would be it.

Returners need to be prolific in order to carve themselves out a role on special teams alone, and Pettis didn’t exactly grasp this early in his pro career, muffing a punt on one of his early nine attempts before all but giving up the duties to James midway through the season. But the idea of him finding that same magic he enjoyed at the college level at least lends some credence to the suggestion Pettis can resurrect his otherwise dwindling pro career.

It might be his last chance to do so.

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Regardless, San Francisco’s return game is far from established heading into this season, and there are plenty of X-factors yet to be determined, making this a battle to watch for the depth chart entering training camp.