No. 2: Who will return for the 49ers?
The 49ers return unit, both on kickoffs and punts, was nothing to write home about. As a kickoff returner, Richie James ranked right in the middle as 16th in the league with 21.4 yards per return, with no touchdowns. As a punt returner, he was tied for 12th with 8 yards per return. However, his punt return decisions about when to field the ball and when to call for a fair catch, non-quantifiable statistics, were questionable to say the best.
James’ criticisms are valid, and whether he should be the starting returner at either position is a worthwhile debate, but James broke his wrist over the offseason working out, putting his already precarious roster spot in further jeopardy.
That makes the decision for who to be a returner that much harder.
I start with punt returners because the candidates here are more varied and more interesting to discuss. The first candidate is the NCAA’s all-time leader in punt return touchdowns, soon-to-be third-year receiver Dante Pettis. Now Pettis found himself in Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse near the end of last year, putting his roster spot already at risk. However, his talent at returning punts is undeniable.
Pettis was taken off returning punts because of his inability to hold onto the ball at times, but it’s clear he would be one of the better options to take the job. Not only would it find a purpose for a player that has been marginalized for opportunities in the offense, but it could also give his career new legs.
The next best option is the recently drafted first-round rookie, Brandon Aiyuk. While not garnering the same accolades as Pettis, Aiyuk also had a stellar performance as a college returner, and his profile fits that of a returner quite well. However, Aiyuk may be kept away from punts to avoid injuries and to keep him fresh for offensive drives.
The issue with kick returners is that, despite some of the issues with his performance, James was the best option without question. Pettis does not have the experience or the profile for a kick returner, where straight-line speed matters more than shiftiness and elusiveness. Aiyuk could be an option, but the injury concerns for punt-returning are exasperated with kick-offs.
A potential option could be a player like D.J. Reed or even Raheem Mostert, but with Mostert’s involvement in the offense, he could also be held back. There is no right answer here, and no glaring candidate as opposed to the punt return game.