It's no mystery that since releasing Allen Rossum, and losing Nate Clements to injury, the 49ers punt return options have been somewhere between awful and abysmal. You know what, I think I'll just stick with abysmal because they honestly don't qualify to be as good as "awful." The 49ers as a team rank 31st in the NFL in punt returns with a 3.8 yard average. Brandon Jones ranks 73rd in the NFL among all players to return a punt with a 2.9 yard average. Arnaz Battle ranks 81st with a return average of .7 yards. Yes you read that right. Oh and that is good enough for dead last among any player to return a punt, so congratulations Arnaz.
Which brings me to yet another suggestion for how to improve the punt return game, if even just a little bit. Josh Morgan is quickly showing he has some serious kick return skills. Maybe he's not Devin Hester, but in a small sample size so far, he might very well be the answer for the 49ers. On 9 kick returns he's averaging 32.9 yards per return. It's not enough returns to qualify, but it's certainly a nice start. The current leader among qualified return men is Clifton Smith with an average of 29.1 yards per return.
Given Morgan's solid start as a kick returner, should the 49ers be giving him a chance to return punts as well? I'm not throwing that out there simply because of his success as a kick returner. Although there are similarities in the two types of returns, punt returns do require some different skills than kick returns. However, Morgan does have a track record of returning punts at Virginia Tech. His sophomore season he returned 11 punts, his junior season he returned 7 punts, and his senior season he returned 1 punt. Not a huge number to work with, but still better than nothing.
John Taylor is a guy that many 49ers fans look back on fondly for both his receiving skills AND his return skills. Taylor was a very solid return man for the 49ers, particularly in the punt return arena, where he was the main returner from 1988-1991. I'm not saying Josh Morgan is the second coming of John Taylor, but it would certainly be a nice guy for him to emulate.
There are certain injury concerns in the punt return game, and given that Morgan will likely be the #2 guy in 2010, maybe it's not worth the risk. And of course, he could get worn down from the beating he would take in the return game and potentially become less effective as the #2 wide receiver. At the same time, the punt return game has been pretty awful this season. I don't know if it's at an historic level, but it has to be close given what we've been subjected to. The 49ers keep rolling out Arnaz Battle back there, but it's clearly not working. Is it time to give Josh Morgan a chance as both the punt and kick return option? Or do they just find somebody in the offseason in free agency or the draft to fill the role?