49ers 2020 ‘Who Is?’ series: Richie James’ dim last chance

Wide receiver Richie James #13 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
Wide receiver Richie James #13 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images) /

49ers wide receiver Richie James was in danger of missing out on the 53-man roster in 2020, and an offseason injury won’t help.

For whatever the reasons, the San Francisco 49ers haven’t utilized two-year wide receiver Richie James much on offense after selecting him in Round 7 in the 2018 NFL Draft out of Middle Tennessee State.

In 2019, James averaged 27.5 yards per reception, which would have ranked best in the NFL if he had qualified in this category. But given he had just six receptions on 10 targets, James didn’t qualify and was largely relegated solely to special teams duties last season.

James’ efforts here were decent, if not spectacular:

Richie James Kick & Punt Returns Table
GamesPunt ReturnsKick Returns

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/8/2020.

There was that spectacular 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks in 2018. But James’ 21.4 kick-return average in 2019 ranked 12th, while his 8.0-yard average on punt returns was tied for seventh best.

But these numbers don’t equate to elite return abilities, which are required if a player hopes to land on a 53-man roster based on these skills alone.

Making things worse for James’ prospects to hang around on the Niners roster was news he suffered a broken wrist during offseason workouts, which will set him back two months and potentially cut into his availability for the regular season.

San Francisco already has a crowded running back room, even if there are question marks there, yet James could end up having a long way to go to make his way back in 2020.

Niner Noise explores what James will have to do to stick around this season in our latest “Who Is?” series installment.

Why Richie James improves with 49ers in 2020

James has been a training camp standout the past two years, although he’ll likely wind up missing this key time in 2020.

That said, James has shown some explosiveness in the return game not totally exemplified elsewhere. True, fellow wide receiver Dante Pettis was an exceptional record-breaking punt returner in college, but that hasn’t translated over to the NFL ranks. Slot receiver Trent Taylor‘s injuries the past two years, paired with cornerback D.J. Reed‘s torn pectoral, could ultimately leave the Niners with few options.

This could give James a chance to hold onto a spot solely because of the lack of options elsewhere.

To truly improve, though, James will have to excel even more as a receiving threat and shake off the role of being a mere depth receiver.

Why Richie James regresses with 49ers in 2020

Not being available for training camp hurts James a lot.

As noted, his last two camps have been exceptional, and the 5-foot-9 receiver made a name for himself with some impossible catches during practices. Those carried over into the preseason, which ultimately influenced head coach Kyle Shanahan to keep him on the roster.

But James didn’t get many more chances during the regular season, so he essentially has only his camp accolades to boast of.

If James can’t wholly solidify himself as the guy for the return game, it’ll be a long uphill climb for him to stand a chance.

Chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster

Pettis and Taylor are two players vying for a roster spot this season, although they’re much higher up on the bubble.

Another injury to wide receiver Deebo Samuel opens up a slightly bigger chance for James to stick around into the regular season, particularly if Samuel is absent for more than a few weeks. Even then, it’s likely James winds up being towards the bottom portion of the depth chart.

Perhaps the best way for James to solidify his chance would be to excel again on special teams, proving his a much better and safer option for kickoffs and punts than most of the Niners’ other possible contributors here.

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But again, few players with so-so return abilities make rosters based off those accolades alone. As such, James will have a tough road ahead of him, made even more difficult because of his wrist injury.