49ers roster 2021: Richie James needs his due on offense

Richie James #13 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Richie James #13 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

The 49ers haven’t given wide receiver Richie James too many chances to shine, but that could all change in 2021 if he seizes the opportunity.

Let’s make one thing clear: When San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Richie James is given a prominent role on the offense, he thrives.

This isn’t just hyperbole either.

In 2019, James had an NFL-best 27.5 yards-per-reception average. But considering that figure came on only six catches, he didn’t qualify. Let the six catches on 10 targets sit in.

Then in 2020 during a Week 9 Thursday Night Football matchup against the Green Bay Packers in which James was forced to start amid a shorthanded Niners offense, all he managed to do was catch nine passes for 184 yards and a touchdown.

No big deal, right?

It might have been somewhat understandable why head coach Kyle Shanahan wasn’t fielding James much ever since he was drafted in 2018. At best, James was the No. 4 wide receiver on the depth chart behind higher-profile players like Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Emmanuel Sanders and Kenrick Bourne.

Sanders hasn’t been in the picture for some time now, and Bourne left via free agency this offseason, effectively leaving Samuel and Aiyuk as the only starting-caliber options.

An increased opportunity for James?

Perhaps. Niner Noise’s “Who is?” series takes a closer look.

Why Richie James finally breaks out with 49ers in 2021

True, James’ contributions for San Francisco have primarily been limited to special teams, where one could assume he’s an OK returner with the occasional knack of putting kickoffs and punts on the ground.

Not good there, but let’s try staying focused on the offensive output:

Richie James Receiving Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 6/25/2021.

James’ career 18.1 yards-per-reception average actually ranks second best in franchise history for players with at least 30 receptions during their 49ers tenure. Stacking up his career efforts against last year’s NFL leaderboard, James would have ranked third best in the entire league in this category, too.

Related Story: Richie James could see more field time in 2021

The only problem has been volume. James simply hasn’t gotten enough of this.

With Bourne and former slot receiver Trent Taylor not in the picture, James now has a far better path towards ensuring a more prominent role on offense.

And entering a contract year, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound James should have no shortage of motivation.

Why Richie James remains buried with 49ers in 2021

Whatever the reasons, head coach Kyle Shanahan has continuously refused to make James a more featured part of the Niners offense unless the circumstances have absolutely dictated it.

Whether or not James is officially in Shanahan’s doghouse is anyone’s guess. And while James’ path to a potential WR3 role appears to be better in the wake of losing Bourne and Taylor, it’s not like San Francisco thinned out its wide receiver room heading into 2021.

The 49ers spent the offseason adding some new faces, including veterans like Mohamed Sanu and Trent Sherfield, and they’re also looking to press in players who were with the team last year but not on the 53-man roster, Jauan Jennings and Travis Benjamin.

Others, such as River Cracraft and Austin Watkins, are in the mix as well.

Needless to say, there’s going to be some hot competition for a starting slot role and the No. 3 spot on the depth chart, so James could still wind up being buried on the depth chart if he winds up making the roster.

Chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster, projected role

James isn’t necessarily a lock to survive roster cuts, but he’s certainly on the stronger side of the bubble.

Shanahan might not be enamored with James. But the head coach knows what he has in the receiver, and James understands the offense. That provides an advantage over newer faces like Sherfield and Watkins. James is also significantly younger than one player he might be primarily competing with in training camp, Benjamin, perhaps giving an advantage there, too.

Unfortunately, James missed a chunk of organized team activities, but that shouldn’t hold him back from being available in training camp where he can hopefully make his presence felt.

Sanu and Jennings appeared to be the favorites for the Niners’ No. 3 receiving role, which is bad news for James but potentially not something that’ll prevent him from being something of a gadget weapon.

A deep threat, who’d be featured in four-wide formations where he’d be asked to run field-stretching routes.

If this is the case, James’ YPC average would likely end up staying relatively high while his catches per game remain low.

It seems to be the definition of James’ tenure so far with San Francisco.

Next. Debunking 3 myths about Kyle Shanahan. dark