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49ers Position Battles: Is Return Man Wide Open?

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One concern that arose at the end of the 2011 49ers season was the question of depth at the punt and kick return positions. Ted Ginn Jr. has been handling both those roles the last two years as well as almost anybody in the NFL. He has been among the league leaders in both categories, and has been an important part of the 49ers position battle victories.

The 49ers appeared prepared to let him walk in free agency as he looked for a greater role as a wide receiver. He apparently did not find what he was looking for, as he returned to the 49ers on a one-year deal. The deal included $500,000 in guaranteed money and a chance for a $175,000 roster bonus. I'm inquiring into when that roster bonus comes due, but given how the 49ers have been handing out roster bonuses this offseason, it seems like it would be a weekly roster bonus adding up to the $175,000. It could also be a one-time bonus after final roster cuts, but who knows.

Last month, Ginn was not practicing and Coach Harbaugh indicated he was "working through something at this point, physically." Whatever the injury was (or still is), it has given the team a chance to get more reps for potential backup return men. One player getting a lot of work is Kyle Williams. I figured there was no chance he would be back returning kicks or punts for the 49ers, but the much maligned wide receiver has apparently been working as Ginn's primary backup and getting praise from Coach Harbaugh:

How much of a priority is it just to try to develop that number two punt returner for this season, assuming he's number one?

"Well, we think we have a really good one in Kyle Williams. And we'll always be developing players at every position. And the importance of that is very important. So, I think we're in good shape."

Arguably the two most likely options after Ginn and Williams would be guys like Perrish Cox and LaMichael James. Chris Culliver and Kendall Hunter have some return experience among returning players, and of course Chris Owusu has plenty of backers as a possible kick returner.

While $500,000 in guaranteed money is quite a bit, if the 49ers think they can be comfortable with another option, the coaching staff could decide that's the route to take. Part of the issue in whether Ginn returns is the abundance of options at wide receiver. If the team views Ginn as a returner with very limited use as a receiver, are they enamored enough with his return skills to look past his lack of additional versatility?

Harbaugh and Baalke talk frequently about versatility on the roster and Ginn may not provide enough of it. Kyle Williams and Perrish Cox would seem to have a bit more upside as dual purpose players. While Williams would seem to have the edge in the return battle, Cox has received some praise of his own, with Coach Harbaugh indicating the team expects contributions from him on special teams.

All of this should make for an interesting battle once training camp gets here.