49ers Training Camp Storyline No. 3: Who Wins the Return Roles?
When the 49ers lost wide receiver Richie James to a broken wrist this offseason, it created a wide-open void to handle the primary punt- and kick-return duties on special teams.
It’s an important-yet-unheralded job, of course, particularly when considering the Niners offense started off, on average, on it’s own 32.1-yard line last year, which was good for third best in the league. While James wasn’t exactly a prolific return specialist, he undoubtedly helped.
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With James likely shelved on the PUP list for the first six weeks of 2020, returning kicks and punts is an open-ended question mark. Brandon Aiyuk could have been a candidate. But after losing him to a hamstring injury, San Francisco is unlikely to risk him to additional contact once the regular season commences.
Dante Pettis and Trent Taylor both have punt-return experience, Pettis’ at the college level being of the record-setting variety yet not quite exploited at the pro level. Recently signed wideouts, Tavon Austin and River Cracraft, could also make a splash returning kicks, too. That aspect was essentially both players’ specialties in recent years.
Even Jerick McKinnon was practicing his punt-return skills, too.
Special teams rarely receive the attention they deserve, yet it’s pretty clear the 49ers don’t have one particular player in mind to assume one or both of the return roles this season.
And yet it could be a pretty important role, as long as the Niners want to retain the field-position status their offense enjoyed a year ago.