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Who will return punts and kicks for the 49ers in 2021?

Richie James? A rookie?

NCAA Football: Michigan at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

When we ranked the 49ers position groups, it was easy to put their special teams’ unit last. San Francisco has struggled in the third phase of the game, from the kicking game to the return units.

Injuries haven’t helped, as the 49ers have struggled to field units that aren’t littered with practice squad players as the domino effect has taken its toll.

For today, let’s concentrate on the kick and punt return units. Cordarrelle Patterson is a free agent and one of the best return men in NFL history. In theory, the 49ers could solve all of their return problems by adding Patterson.

It’s not often that you can sign a player on the street during the second week of May who could be a significant upgrade, but here we are. Let’s assume that Patterson isn’t in the plans for the 49ers.

That means their potential kick returners are Richie James, Elijah Mitchell, Ambry Thomas, or Austin Walter, who returned a handful of kicks in 2020. Walter is unlikely to make the roster for this upcoming season, though. Both rookies returned kicks in college. Thomas could be the sneaky leader for the Niners as he had plenty of success at Michigan.

The drop-off in starting field position for the offense was staggering from 2019 to 2020. The 49ers went from second to 23rd. Unless you’re expecting the defense to be historical as they were in ‘19, the offense likely falls somewhere in the mid-teens if they don’t get a boost in production in their return game.

Kick returns are harder to come by as the rules have changed. There’s no reason the Niners can’t find a decent punt returner, though. Kyle Shanahan has said the team would use Brandon Aiyuk situationally. I’d use him full-time.

Not only is Aiyuk your clear-cut best option, but injuries can happen on any play if that’s the worry. The goal should be to get the ball into your best player's hands as often as possible. By letting Aiyuk return punts, you’re doing this. Now, I get the argument that he may not be fresh for offense, but that’s selling Aiyuk short at the same time.

CeeDee Lamb finished 11th in the NFL last year in punt return average. As we know, Lamb was a rookie first-round wide receiver. Among the 16 returners who qualified, Lamb was the lone player to have a punt return touchdown. Put the ball in your playmakers' hands.

If you could pick one kick and punt returner for the 49ers, who would you have the most faith in?