The word on the street yesterday was that the San Francisco 49ers ave been shopping running back LaMichael James. Matt Barrows reported on what most viewed as unsurprising. Even James tweeted about old news becoming new news. It's pretty clear this has been in the works, and a trade is almost inevitable at this point. Maybe something changes, but odds are pretty good the 49ers will be without their primary 2013 kick and punt returner.
The 49ers are bringing in several running backs for visits, and there are some questions about what will happen at the running back position. But the real impact of a potential LMJ trade is the need for new options at the returner positions. LMJ had his struggles, but he provided a much greater spark than Kyle Williams in the return game. If the 49ers elect to trade James, they'll need to find a replacement or two in the return game.
The 49ers do have some internal options that will probably get some opportunities in training camp. Perrish Cox and Kendall Hunter both have a decent amount of return experience in their short NFL careers. Chris Culliver had return experience in college, but coming off his torn ACL, and the fact that he's likely in the starting lineup at cornerback, I'm just not seeing it.
I have been doing some research and there is not a lot written specifically about the best returners in this draft. I did find one solid article over at Bleacher Report courtesy of former Cal Bear and NFL player Ryan Riddle. He highlighted six of the top return options in the 2014 NFL Draft, including some breakdown on the skills of each. His list includes:
1. De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
2. Dri Archer, RB, Kent State
3. Odell Beckham, Jr., WR, LSU
4. Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
5. Marqise Lee, WR, USC
6. Jalen Saunders, WR, Oklahoma
I spoke with Tre, and he mentioned Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Dan Kadar from Mocking the Draft mentioned Ohio State wide receiver Corey Brown, Wyoming wide receiver Robert Herron, and Florida wide receiver Solomon Patton.
This is a mix of guys expected to go in the first and second rounds, and then some talent that will slip a bit further down. If the 49ers made a move to get a guy like Justin Gilbert, maybe they work him in as a return man. If not, they can wait and see who slips down the draft board. A guy like De'Anthony Thomas would be intriguing. He could compete a bit at running back, but if he were brought in, return work would seemingly be his primary opportunity. Oh the coincidence of adding one Duck to replace another Duck.
Speaking of Thomas, here's Draft Breakdown videos of two of his games this past season. The first is his game against Virginia. The second is his game against Tennessee. Check out more video at his Draft Breakdown page. If you want to check out video of the other players on the list above, or any players for that matter, here's their player page.