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The San Francisco 49ers started training camp with a wafer-thin group of return men. With wide receiver Richie James dealing with a broken wrist and cornerback D.J. Reed now a member of the Seahawks, only WRs Dante Pettis and Trent Taylor have any return experience in the red and gold. Since the 2020 preseason was cancelled, special-teams coordinator Richard Hightower is going to have his work cut out for him figuring out who will field kicks for his units. Here are the players currently on the roster that could carve out a niche in the return game.
WR Dante Pettis
When Dante Pettis was taken in the second round of the 2018 draft, he entered the league as the most prolific punt returner in NCAA history. Over the course of his four years at the University of Washington, Pettis had 90 returns for 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns. However, those numbers have not translated to the NFL as he has averaged just 3.0 yards on his nine punt returns. In 2019, Pettis appeared to fall into head coach Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse and could not pull himself out of it. If he can show the same ability in the return game as he did in college, Pettis will solidify his spot on the final roster.
WR Trent Taylor
Trent Taylor is one of those guys on the roster that can seemingly do a little bit of everything if only his body would cooperate. He has battled injuries since joining the 49ers in 2017 and missed the entirety of the 2019 season with a complicated foot injury. Taylor is not a traditional return man that has burner speed but his shiftiness and vision with the ball in his hands make him a dependable option. Since 2018, he has 10 punt returns for 78 yards with six fair catches. Reliability is the name of the game for Taylor and Hightower will likely use him as long as he stays healthy.
WR Tavon Austin
A former first-round pick of the then-St. Louis Rams, Tavon Austin is the most experienced return man on the entire roster. He has 185 career punt returns and 25 career kick returns that have netted three special teams touchdowns. The 49ers’ WR corps is dealing with multiple injuries at the moment and Austin is looking to find a way onto the roster in his age-30 season. The speedster has not consistently returned kicks since his rookie season but has never had a year without double digit punt returns. Expect the team to take a long, hard look at what Austin can do for them.
RB JaMycal Hasty
Undrafted free agents always have a hard time cracking any NFL roster, but a UDFA making his way onto this 49ers’ roster is even tougher. JaMycal Hasty could use his limited experience as a kick returner in college as his in. Unlike the previous three players, Hasty’s special-teams résumé is exclusively in the kick-return game. He is another player who will be hurt by the lack of preseason games and will have to show his ability during practice drills. For a guy trying to claw onto the final roster, Hasty needs to make himself as versatile as possible and filling this gap on the depth chart could be the exact way.
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