If you’re anything like me, and the group of other diehards who write for this site, you were still glued to your screen with about four minutes left in the fourth quarter of the preseason’s first game.
That’s when something very intriguing — and quite frankly rare — occurred. A kick returner for the 49ers fielded a ball just behind his own goal line, took it out with an angle to the left, and exploded for a silky smooth 43-yard burst.
That kick return ranks longer than any return during the 2020 season. It was enough for me to sit up, and take notice of the responsible party, No. 6 Nsimba Webster. Noted.
Then, on the next play, the offense ran a wide arching reverse that resulted in another big chunk gain of 34 yards. In a case of deja vu, Webster was, once again, the ball carrier. He flashed twice by making one good cut, and chugging past defenders, full steam ahead.
A player compiling 77 yards of total offense on back-to-back plays will get anyone’s attention, but almost certainly piqued the interest of the Niners’ coaching staff.
Kyle Shanahan confirmed this much on a conference call the next day, after having a chance to review the tape:
“...Nismba, he did a hell of a job. He gave us that spark there at the end to take the lead… He started it off with that kick return, then was followed up by a reverse. I was just happy how he ran the ball. The game didn’t look to big for him. He looked like he enjoyed the physicality of the game. He definitely got himself a chance to be in the mix.”
This all left me wondering, where did this guy come from? What’s his skill set? And can he actually make the final roster?
This team’s near-constant search for a reliable return man necessitated Webster’s claim off of waivers after the Rams cut him over the summer. He signed with Los Angeles in 2019 as an undrafted free agent, appearing in five games his rookie season, before logging a full sixteen games last year, as a special teams specialist.
Webster posted a 7.4-yard average on 25 punts, 21.7 yards on 16 kick returns, and kicked in 12 tackles for good measure. However, he’s yet to record his first NFL reception.
As a Ram, Webster earned a reputation as one of the team’s hardest workers, dedicating himself to remain available in 2020 by strictly following COVID protocols. He spent most of the season either at the team facilities or his apartment, which he credited for helping him bank a bigger portion of his league minimum salary. Since arriving in the NFL, his one splurge purchase was an affordable 2018 Dodge Challenger. The same car that Samson Ebukam, his teammate from college, the Rams, and now 49ers, also, bought. Small world.
Rewind to his college years, and it turns out, Webster always had his eyes on the future. At Eastern Washington, he got stuck in a positional logjam behind two players, who’ll definitely ring a bell for Niner fans. He watched from the sidelines, as Cooper Kupp and Kendrick Bourne tore up the Big Sky competition, and decided to commit himself to the third phase of the game, knowing it would get him playing time then, and make himself more valuable to NFL teams later.
Webster totaled 1,114 yards on 48 returns for a career average of 23.2 before the path to starting receiver was cleared. Once given the chance, Webster continued to rack up monster numbers, using his inherent shiftiness. As a redshirt senior, he earned All-Big Sky honors, with a stat sheet that boasted 84 receptions, 1379 yards, and 11 touchdowns.
Backing up to his high school days, it should come as no surprise that Webster, an East Bay native, became something of a legend at Deer Valley High School, as a dual-threat, run-first quarterback. He collected All-State hardware, like the ankles he snatched with his nasty juke move. In 2013, he even obtained a bit of viral fame for shaking the entire opposing defense en route to a 50+ yard touchdown.
His highlight reel on YouTube is aptly titled, “The Most Exciting Player in High School Football,” and is absolutely worth five minutes of your time. Just because he ran for more scores than he threw doesn’t mean he couldn’t sling it, Webster tallied over 2,000 yards through the air. This presents an interesting wrinkle for the offense, considering how much we all know that Kyle Shanahan loves a trick play. *cough* Emmanuel Sanders *cough*
What does he do?
As for my final question, I think it’s become clear that a door has been opened for Nsimba Webster to walk through. While the coaching staff would love for Richie James Jr. to put the return role, and even a backup receiver spot, in a stranglehold, it has yet to happen.
In fact, his grip has only loosened given his penchant for drops in training camp and the first preseason game. Meanwhile, River Cracraft has similarly struggled to assert himself as a legit candidate for the sixth WR spot or special teams duties in his limited playing time. The only other player that would seem to be in direct competition with Webster is Travis Benjamin, who represents an older, more expensive, and less dynamic option.
The biggest hurdle to clear remains the aforementioned James Jr., who enters his third year in the San Fransisco ecosystem, after having tantalizingly shown his talents in fits and spurts those first two seasons.
Perhaps, on the other hand, familiarity has bred contempt, and the newcomer can carve out himself a role that seemed destined for an old standby.
The argument for handing over the keys to Webster tracks with the Shanahan ethos. Versatility and a willingness to fearlessly handle the unglamorous dirty work have led to bigger roles for guys like Raheem Mostert in the past.
The do-it-all gadget player could provide stability in a notoriously unstable role for the Niners dating back to the Harbaugh days, and, apparently, he’s even been standing out in one-on-ones at the joint practices with the Chargers.
As of now, Webster has done everything in his power to solidify his name as a serious contender for a roster spot on a team that intends to contend. That’s impressive no matter which way the ball bounces.