Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Should 49ers fans be concerned about Brandon Aiyuk returning punts?

Marc Adams
Sep 3, 2021 at 10:41 AM--

The San Francisco 49ers pared down their roster this week, making multiple cuts and moves. There were a few surprises, but for the most part, things went as expected. One question that remains, however, is who will be returning punts?

Most believe second-year wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk would be the most effective punt returner. He did it in college, and has game-breaking ability. But do you really want one of your star wideouts returning punts, and increasing his chances of being injured?

Head coach Kyle Shanahan addressed the topic this week. In an interview with KNBR Radio on Thursday, Shanahan said, "I definitely think Aiyuk can do it and I have no problem putting a starting receiver back there. That's never been a philosophy of mine and it hasn't changed yet. So, I feel we got some guys on our team who can do it."

Should we be concerned about this? Should a starting wide receiver be the main punt returner?

If you look at 49ers history alone, there have been plenty of wide receivers returning punts, though many of them rarely played on offense, or were role players (names like Brandon Williams, Michael Lewis, Kevin Williams, Iheanyi Uwaezuoke and Richie James). There have been some starting wide receivers who returned punts, but most weren't considered star (or key) players at wide receiver (names like Arnaz Battle and Ted Ginn, Jr.).

In 2016, the 49ers used their best wide receiver, Jeremy Kerley, as a punt returner. Kerley returned 21 punts that season. In 2017, Trent Taylor returned 30 punts. And the 49ers used Freddie Solomon in the early 1980s to return punts. Solomon was one of the team's top two receivers, along with some guy named Dwight Clark. Solomon never had more than 30 punt returns in one season, but he did return two punts for touchdowns in 1980.

The best example of the 49ers using a starting wide receiver, however, is John Taylor. Taylor was a starting wide receiver and the main punt returner for the 49ers from 1988 to 1991. He returned only one punt as a rookie in 1987, and only 11 punts in his final season in 1995. But from 1988 to 1991, Taylor was the team's top punt returner.

In 1988, Taylor returned 44 punts, two for touchdowns. His average return was 12.6 yards. A year later, he returned 36 punts for 11.6 yards per return. This is one of the ways you measure an effective punt returner. Yes, it's great when he scores or breaks a big return. But when your punt returner can average more than 10 yards per return, that's one fewer first down the offense has to get. And that can have a big impact on a game, and on a season.

Other NFL teams have used starting wide receivers to be the main punt returner. In 2020, the Dallas Cowboys used rookie CeeDee Lamb to return punts. He returned 27 of them, including one kickoff return for a touchdown. The Kansas City Chiefs have been known to use star receiver, Tyreek Hill as a punt returner, though usually on a part-time basis.

For years, the Philadelphia Eagles used DeSean Jackson, and the Pittsburgh Steelers used Antonio Brown to return punts. Even current 49ers wide receivers coach, Wes Welker, returned punts, while being an effective receiver...who was catching a lot of passes over the middle...and wasn't a big guy.

Add to that the fact that there have been teams that used star players from other positions as punt returners. Washington used Darrell Green, its top cornerback. Atlanta used Deion Sanders, its top cornerback. At one point, Dallas used Sanders at corner, wide receiver and punt returner. Think about that!

So there is a history of teams using starting wide receivers, and even star players, without many injuries. Sure, there were returners who got injured. It's part of the game. But coaches must measure the risk versus the potential reward.

Former 49ers tight end Brent Jones went on 95.7 The Game and discussed this topic, among others. He said he had been thinking it would be a good idea to have Aiyuk return punts, until his recent hamstring injury. He suggested maybe they should wait a few weeks until that heals up. I would agree with this. If Aiyuk is already slowed by an injury, it's probably not the time for him to be out there. But when he's ready, I am all for him being back there.

Is it risky? Sure. But using Aiyuk as punt returner immediately gives the 49ers a threat back there that they haven't had since Ginn was in San Francisco. I'm going to trust the coaching staff to make the right call...and not worry too much about it.


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