It feels like Richie James has been on the 49ers for more than three years, but the seventh-round pick in 2018 is entering his fourth year with the team. Before 2020, James was primarily utilized as a return man. As a rookie, James famously returned a kick for a touchdown. The next season, he was one of the better punt returners in the league.
Finding a place for him on offense wasn’t easy, but that changed last season as James nearly quadrupled his receptions from the season before and more than doubled his yards. All in all, James averaged 35 yards receiving per game, which was up from ten during the two previous seasons.
James burst onto the scene with a breakout game on Thursday night against the Packers, where he caught nine passes for 184 yards and a touchdown. He’d flash in a few other games during the second half of the season, but Week 9 was the game where everyone asked, where has this been for three years?
Age: 25 (turns 26 on September 5)
Experience: Three accrued seasons
Weight: 185 pounds
James is in the final year of his contract, with a base salary of $920,000. Players like Richard Sherman have always gone to bat for James and his talents, and, in a contract year, James might have a chance to prove himself.
Why he might improve in 2021
Opportunity. How many games has James had where he had a chance to play consecutive weeks as a part of the 49ers game plan on offense? He caught three of his five targets in the game after the Packers' eruption, but James also had a costly fumble that he lost.
Consistency will be what gets James on the field this season. When Kyle Shanahan spoke before canceling mandatory minicamp, he mentioned James as the first potential candidate for WR3.
James will need to become more comfortable catching the ball with defenders around him if he’s going to play in the slot. While 14 of his 23 receptions went for first or touchdowns, James dropped 10% of his passes. Kendrick Bourne has a career-high in drop percentage last season at 8.5%.
James could stand to run crisper, cleaner routes, too. There were times where he took too long to get in and out of his breaks or was disrupted by contact from the cornerback. Using his hands at the line of scrimmage and playing stronger would help James greatly.
What to expect in 2021
Anybody who can answer this, coaching staff included, is guessing. James' performance against the Packers gave us a glimpse of what he could do in Shanahan’s system, but it’s an obvious outlier.
Ideally, James has a couple of games during the season where he explodes but is a consistent threat game to game that has a few catches and perhaps an explosive play. That feels like the best-case scenario for James.
I wonder if focusing on wide receiver without having to concentrate on being a returner would help James become more consistent. We shall found out soon enough.