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Projecting the 49ers punt and kick returners

As we've moved through the various roster projections for the 49ers this offseason, one issue has popped up. As Tre9er put it in his FanPost on the 53-man competition, we've got guys battling not only for their primary position, but also against players at other positions for simply an overall roster spot. You've got a guy like Alex Boone trying to establish himself as a viable backup on the offensive line, and then a guy like Brit Miller who is trying to prove he's worth holding onto as a fullback. And yet, Miller's chances of making the roster might depend in part on proving he's more valuable at what he can do as compared to what Boone can do. It gets fairly complicated considering all the pairings involved.

One position where we see this in spades is in the 49ers kick and punt returner options. The 49ers have several potential options at both positions, including Ted Ginn, Jr, LeRoy Vann, Dominique Zeigler, Kyle Williams, Delanie Walker (mostly a back-up option), and even maybe Brandon Jones, if just barely.

Aside from Walker and probably Ginn, that list of players includes a good chunk of bubble players. Kyle Williams isn't guaranteed anything, but hopefully he can make the roster for more than just his return abilities.

The point of that rambling is that if any of these guys can establish themselves as a viable threat in the return game, it will only help their chances of making the 53-man roster. This is particularly true or Vann and Zeigler. Maiocco put together an offensive and defensive player-by-player overview following minicamp and had this to say about Vann and Zeigler:

33-LeRoy Vann: His playing time at cornerback decreased with the arrivals of Clements and Shawntae Spencer. It's clear that Vann's ticket for the 53-man roster (or the practice squad, for that matter) is the return game. But Vann did not look good in trying to field punts from the first day of offseason work. He was the least-secure of any of the 49ers players working on punt returns. At one point, after a particularly rough stretch that featured muffed punt after muffed punt, one veteran blurted out loudly, "You're fired!" Vann plans to stick around Santa Clara until the start of training camp. He must get more confident in this area to give himself any chance at sticking around.

17-Dominique Zeigler: He was back returning kickoffs on the final day of minicamp. You get the feeling that if Sullivan had his way, Zeigler would be among the receivers he carries on the team. Zeigler is always drawing praise from Sullivan on how he runs routes. And when others aren't as precise, Sullivan will advise them to watch Zeigler. He had a pretty good offseason program. He and Jason Hill had roughly the same number of catches behind starters Crabtree and Josh Morgan.

Vann really struggled during offseason practices, but he seems to recognize the issue (as seen on Twitter):

Done working now stayed late caught 200 punts n 100 kick offs still getting it n. You can never work to hard!!!!!

Hopefully he can get the yips worked out. He was a monster in the return game in college, and if he could bring that kind of talent to the 49ers, it would be a huge boon for the return game.

Zeigler is more meant for the kick return game, but I'd imagine he'll get some practice as a punt returner as well. As we'll see when we take look at wide receiver roster projections, Zeigler faces an up-hill battle at a fairly stacked wide receiver position. Any versatility for the youngster would put him in prime position to steal a roster spot.

The other interesting punt return candidate is Kyle Williams, who apparently has looked the best out of all the return options thus far.

10-Kyle Williams: He worked at split end, but his best spot is in the slot. It will be difficult for him to work his way into the action on offense as a rookie. His best bet might be as a punt returner, where he looked the most secure of any of the candidates in fielding punts.

Although training camp is a good stage to work on returning, the punt return position can really be hammered down during preseason games. After all, that's when you finally have gunners coming at you and the pressure is really on. It will be interesting to see which player is able to shine. Everybody has their personal preferences, but all I really want is one guy to step up.