Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
The San Francisco 49ers enter the 2019 season with possibly the deepest group of wide receivers the team has seen in over a decade. Significant draft capital was spent on the position since John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan took over the team in 2017. Many of the receivers drafted came with plenty of experience as return men for their respective college teams. However, a bulk of the return game has been handled by late-round wide receivers Trent Taylor and Richie James Jr. Should Shanahan consider using Dante Pettis and Deebo Samuel as punt and kick returners?
While at the University of Washington, Pettis set the NCAA record for most career punts returned for touchdowns with nine. During his senior year, he averaged more than 20 yards per return and was able to take four to the house. Due to a litany of injuries in his rookie campaign, Pettis was only used sparingly on special teams. He finished third on the team in punt returns behind Taylor and James, fielding nine total punts, of which only three were returned. His 5.8 yards per return was a far cry from the dominance he showed in college but can be chalked up to his lack of repetitions.
Punt returners subject themselves to more brutal hits than most players on the field. They must keep their eyes focused on the punt high in the air while also staying aware of the 21 other players sprinting down the field towards them. Pettis’s injuries had to play a factor in how limited his time in the return role was. Shanahan knew that it was more important to develop him as a receiver first, returner second and did not afford him the opportunity to put his return skills to use.
As a junior at South Carolina, Deebo Samuel only returned two kick offs during his injury-shortened season; both were for touchdowns. Once he resumed full-time duty in his senior year, he averaged 24.8 yards per kick return and added another touchdown. Often a skill that translates fairly well to the next level, he showed vision and burst as a kicker returner to compete for the starting position right out of the gate.
During 2018, the primary kick returners were James and cornerback D.J. Reed, both of whom showed flashes of greatness. Reed took a kickoff 90 yards and James became the first 49ers’ player to return a kickoff for a touchdown since Ted Ginn in 2011. However, both players dealt with issues hanging onto the football while being tackled and were swapped in and out of the lineup. Looking forward to the way-too-early 53-man roster, despite his experience in both return roles, James may be on the outside looking in with such a talented wide receiver group.
The 49ers roster is set to be vastly improved in many different position groups, wide receiver chief among them. That depth will allow Shanahan to deploy his young players to best use their skillsets, including Pettis and Samuel at punt and kick returners respectively. Both players bring a speed, shiftiness and ability to completely flip the field for the special teams. It is time to play into the players’ strengths.
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