Well, this won't be a very long look back, nor a long look forward, but that is by design, obviously. There's simply not a ton to be said about the 49ers returners. In past seasons, it was a serious afterthought and the team paid for it considerably. In the offseason when they 49ers made some moves, there was much discussion about the position going forward, but as the actual season progressed, it was very rarely even talked about around here. Nevertheless, there are some different options going forward, so let's get to it.
Ted Ginn Jr.
|Receiving||Kickoff Returns||Punt Returns|
It doesn't take some sort of rocket surgeon* to figure out that the 49ers were better off in regards to both kick and punt returns in 2010 when compared to 2009. Folks knew that would be the case when the 49ers forked over a fifth round pick to secure Ted Ginn Jr. When the trade was made, many people here were hopeful that Ginn would have a limited role on offense with his struggled in Miami, but approval was almost unanimous when it came to being utilized as a return man.
He was to come in and immediately provide explosiveness to the kick return game, and he was to potentially spice up punt returns as well. I'd say he fell short of providing explosiveness, and in fact, I think he regressed considerably in that regard. He avoided an awful lot of contact and lost the ability to work in the center of the field. It was "catch the ball, run with it, step out of bounds" this past season.
In my eyes, I was terribly disappointed with what Ginn did with kick returns, but it was still a marked improvement over the garbage we were treated to in 2009, and for that I am thankful. He did surprise me with his punt returns, however. He came in and played well in that regard, though there was a lot of indecisiveness on his part that killed an awful lot of potentially great plays.
Still, if the kick returns are "a little better," then the punt returns are absolutely amazing works of art in comparison.
After the jump, we look at the other kick/punt returner options on the 49ers roster, the 2011 free agents for the position and of course, the 2011 NFL draft ...
|Receiving||Kickoff Returns||Punt Returns|
Williams came into camp as the dark horse to win the punt return job. In the preseason, he had one opportunity to take one of them, and he looked very good for the six or seven seconds we could see him. Then he got hurt, and things passed him by. Once he lost the first step to injury, it was impossible to gain ground again.
Good speed and agility are his biggest strengths. He's not as fast as Ginn, but I feel like he moves between tacklers better and that could be a factor for new special teams coordinator Brad Seely. Williams actually returns a lot like Josh Cribbs in Cleveland does, albeit on a different (lower) level.
Adams is another guy to look at going forward. He wasn't mentioned as a returner until a bit later on in the process, but he did take a punt return back for a touchdown in the preseason. Adams, like Williams, moves well between tacklers and has a good juke move to his credit. There might also be some potential there as a cornerback, so who knows what the 49ers have in him?
I don't like him on kick returns as much as I like him on punt returns. The only problem with that is that his hands don't seem to be the most reliable, he fumbled a couple times and reportedly did so in practice more than once as well. Still, he's clearly lower down the pecking order at this point.
There will be competition, that much is clear. I think Ginn probably has the kick return job locked in still, but who knows how Seely will handle such things? If Kyle Williams is healthy and motivated, he will give Ginn a run for his money with solid progress. If Phillip Adams is able to recover from his ankle injury that occurred late last season, he will be in the mix as well. Players like Williams and Adams could be fighting for a roster spot, and honing their skills as return men could improve their chances of having a job in 2011, so perhaps they will have extra motivation to improve.
Delanie Walker will continue to be a solid backup option, illustrating his eternal usefulness on the roster. Josh Morgan is as well, and might even take on a bigger role if the 49ers find themselves with a new wide receiver at some point. I wouldn't be surprised though, if the 49ers considered this a position of need this offseason as things gear more towards the insanely speedy young guys dominating in the return game.
Darren Sproles, San Diego Chargers: I have to admit, I love me some Sproles. He seemed to lose a step this past season, but he's still a solid option and could supplement the 49ers offense as a running back. General manager Trent Baalke has already made it clear that Anthony Dixon will be getting more time, but if Sproles came to town I would be more than happy giving him the punt return job and letting him be mixed in on offense occasionally.
Leon Washington, Seattle Seahawks: Here's another guy that could come in and be a good backup who gets mixed into the offensive huddle here and there. Oh yeah, and he took back three kickoffs for touchdowns in 2010. Signing him would take away a weapon from the Seahawks (who may not sign him regardless, but still) and he could take over some or all of the return duties.
Brad Smith, New York Jets: Smith will contribute on any team in 2011, and that might get him a big pay day. Or it might not, who really knows at this point? It's hard to put a number on a kick returner/wide receiver/wildcat quarterback, but it might be something that's within the 49ers price range. He took two kickoffs to the house in 2010.
* Yes. That was on purpose.