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If we’re assessing who the 49ers’ punt returner should be based solely on talent, speed, athleticism; really any measure you would use to evaluate the position, there is no debate that Brandon Aiyuk should have the job.
Aiyuk is the fastest skill player San Francisco has. He’s long, has fantastic hands and perhaps more importantly, he was a stellar punt returner in college. In his senior year at Arizona State, Aiyuk was elite on kickoffs and punts, averaging 16.1 yards per punt return (3rd-best in CFB) and 31.9 yards per kick return (5th-best in CFB).
Rookie WR/RS Brandon Aiyuk offers another return specialist to the #49ers game. College return stats: 29 Kick Returns, 785 KR Yards, 27.1 Avg, 25 Punt Returns, 293 PR Yards, 11.7 Avg & 1 TD. #BrandonAiyuk @THE2ERA pic.twitter.com/tt7p3robBK
— 49er_Edits (@49er_edits) May 10, 2020
There’s no one arguing that Aiyuk should be on kickoffs, which, as Jon Bois of SB Nation has pointed out so eloquently, are both stupid and bad. There is obvious upside in a great kickoff return, but the odds of an above-average return are slim. Just six NFL players average returns of more than 25 yards, and they’re the most dangerous play in football.
But punt returns are an egregiously undervalued opportunity to switch the field. Even a five-yard return from your own eight-yard line to the 13-yard line is a massive bonus in terms of escaping your own end zone and increasing the chances that you can win the field position battle.
Punt returns are unquestionably dangerous, too, with the NFL’s switch on kickoffs (moving the ball to the 25 on touchbacks, moving up the kick spot) reportedly making punt returns the most likely play to result in injuries.
But when your offenseis inept, as the 49ers’ currently is, a reliable, yard-chewing returner can even the odds a bit. The 49ers don’t even have a qualifying returner in either category this season.
They’ve used Dante Pettis, Trent Taylor and Richie James Jr. as their returners.
Taylor, who had six returns for 71 yards going into Sunday, is their leader, and, thanks to his one 20-yard return this year, has the 11th-highest return average in the NFL at 11.8 yards per return. James Jr. has two returns for 20 yards and Pettis had two for 14 yards.
The problem is that Taylor overwhelmingly calls fair catches, often when they shouldn’t be called.
That’s proven by the fact that while San Francisco has the ninth-highest punt return average of 10.5 yards entering Sunday, they’ve only attempted to return the ball 10 times, compared to a league average of 11.9 times.
On Sunday, Taylor made a fair catch call and then moved off the ball at the last second, leaving Ken Webster out to dry. Taylor declined to do what returners are supposed to do when they’re not going to catch the ball, which is to yell something like “Fire! Fire!” to alert teammates to get away from the ball.
Instead, the punt ricocheted off Webster’s leg and the Saints recovered.
When James Jr. took over for Taylor, he promptly muffed a punt which New Orleans also recovered. If you’ll recall, he muffed a punt in the Super Bowl but was lucky enough that the 49ers recovered it.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan did not exactly make an impassioned defense of either player when asked if the punt return issues had to do with being in the SuperDome.
“You can ask those guys, but no I don’t think so,” Shanahan said. “Trent fair caught it and then let it go, which, he didn’t tell me that he didn’t see it. I think he should have caught it. And then Richie had that and just dropped it, so you can ask them, but not that I knew of.”
Of course, the Saints’ Deonte Harris muffed a punt too, taking the ball off his facemask, which the 49ers turned into a field goal. The thing is, Harris came right back and returned the ball more than 75 yards on a kickoff, bringing it to San Francisco’s own 25-yard line.
The obvious reason Aiyuk has not been used in that role is to protect him from injury, which is completely valid. Shanahan intimated that after the game, but also acknowledged it might be time to look at using Aiyuk, who has returned punts all season in 49ers practice, as a returner.
“He’s been out, trying to get back healthy and trying to get him started going at receiver first,” Shanahan said. “But [it’s] something we definitely got to look to with what happened today.”
Aiyuk has only improved this year and finished with seven receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. He’s up to 446 receiving yards, three receiving touchdowns and 61 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns this year.
If this 49ers team sincerely wants to make the playoffs this season—which might be a pipe dream at this point—they may have to relent and use their best players in the best roles. That might mean Aiyuk, at least intermittently, being used in a role which guarantees the ball will be in his hands.