49ers roster: Richie James out 6 weeks, return job wide open

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) /

Perhaps the only way Richie James would have made the 49ers’ 53-man roster this season is as a returner, but his injury changes plenty.

Update: Richie James has been waived/injured, meaning the return job is still very much up for grabs.

In determining who’ll be the San Francisco 49ers‘ primary return specialist for the 2021 season, it might be best to find one of those gifs out there with someone doing a shrug.

Go ahead and search “I don’t know” in your queue.

It was likely going to be an open-ended battle entering the regular season anyway. The primary option the last two years, wide receiver Richie James, was already on the roster bubble throughout training camp, largely because of dropped passes during practices, and those issues carried over into the first two preseason games of the year where James was credited with three drops.

Now, as head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters on Friday, James has to undergo knee surgery and will be out six weeks.

What this means for James’ prospects long term, and whether or not the Niners will want him back this season or choose to waive him with an injury settlement, is also anyone’s guess.

In the immediate future, though, San Francisco still has to figure out its best option to return kickoffs and punts.

Would 49ers entertain Brandon Aiyuk as a punt returner?

The 49ers already parted ways with one fill-in punt returner, wide receiver River Cracraft, during the second wave of roster cuts.

Yet another player who fielded punts during camp was second-year wideout Brandon Aiyuk, who handled kickoff and punt-return duties at the college level with notable results:

Brandon Aiyuk College Kick & Punt Returns Table
Kick RetPunt Ret
*2018Arizona StatePac-12JRWR131533922.6011676.10
*2019Arizona StatePac-12SRWR121444631.901422616.11
CareerArizona State2978527.102529311.71

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference
Generated 8/27/2021.

This is certainly the possibility. But it’ll also come with subjecting Aiyuk to more plays on the field, thereby increasing the chances of injury for a player essentially vital to the Niners’ offensive efforts this season.

It’s why few top-tier weapons are featured in the return game at the NFL level. A returner has long since been either a depth or specialist job.

We can’t rule Aiyuk out, of course. Yet there are probably more likely options elsewhere.

Do 49ers go with Nsimba Webster, Travis Benjamin or someone else?

San Francisco has a lot of options, but perhaps only a few stand out as realistic choices.

Second-year wide receiver JaMycal Hasty returned punts in three different years while at Baylor, and that could be a ticket for him to make the 53-man roster. Rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas, meanwhile, averaged 20.7 yards on 39 kickoff-return attempts in college, too. Considering Thomas has looked relatively slowish in his development this preseason, giving him a special teams job could help maximize his NFL Draft value earlier.

But it’s possible the 49ers would prefer to go with someone more established.

Read More: 3 bubble players who deserve to be on Niners’ 53-man roster

Veteran wide receiver Travis Benjamin, who is squarely on the roster bubble, had plenty of experience on both kickoffs and punts earlier in his career. In 2017, Benjamin averaged 9.5 yards per return on 27 punts when he was with the Los Angeles Chargers, while also having 12 kickoff returns way back in 2014.

A more recent addition, however, might be in play, too: wide receiver Nsimba Webster.

The former Los Angeles Rams special teams ace was almost exclusively used as a returner the last two seasons:

Nsimba Webster Kick & Punt Returns Table
GamesPunt ReturnsKick Returns

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 8/27/2021.

Furthermore, Webster flashed some explosiveness in the Niners’ first preseason game of the year against the Kansas City Chiefs, returning three kickoffs for a net total of 62 yards and even recording a long of 43 yards.

And while Webster’s efforts in Week 2 of the preseason against the Chargers weren’t as promising, he might wind up getting the edge over Benjamin.

Yet the final determining factor could ultimately be who shines the most during San Francisco’s exhibition finale on Sunday, Aug. 29 against the Las Vegas Raiders, which kicks off at 4 p.m. ET.

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