The San Francisco 49ers reportedly got their top guy when they traded up from No. 31 to No. 25 in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Head coach Kyle Shanahan stated they had wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk as the No. 1 wideout in the draft class. Yes, No. 1 over Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb or Henry Ruggs III.

That may surprise some but you better believe Shanahan is being honest. He is not the type who lies after the fact to talk up a decision and make it seem better. He has consistently told the truth in interviews and is considered to be as honest as they come in press conferences.

While the drafting of Aiyuk has a lot to do with improving the offense and giving the 49ers a true deep threat, his ability in another area likely means the roster spot another wide receiver has occupied for two years is no longer his to fill.

Simply put, Aiyuk is a dynamic returner. This is not limited to just kickoffs or punts. He is great at both as evidenced by his 31.6 yards average on kickoff returns and 16.1 yards average on punt returns last season at Arizona State.

The player who is now regulated to a long shot for the roster in 2020 is Richie James Jr. Taken in the seventh round in 2018, James has handled the return duties for the 49ers each of the past two seasons while serving as the fifth or sixth receiver.

His results have been merely average. James has averaged 23.4 yards on 43 combined kickoff returns in 2018 and 2019. Among players with at least 20 total kickoff returns in those years, James ranks 19th out of 33 qualifiers.

His punt return ability isn't any better. He's produced 7.5 yards per punt return (45 total returns) with the 49ers. This ranks 23rd out of 35 qualifiers using 20 total punt returns as a minimum.

James has 15 total receptions in two seasons so even with an improvement as a receiver, he is unlikely to beat out the other 49ers receivers if he is going to be used only as a receiver.

This remains true even if the 49ers trade receivers Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis, as is rumored to be possible. Trading both would still give the 49ers Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, Kendrick Bourne, Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd as a likely top five at wide receiver, plus Travis Benjamin. I wouldn't be surprised to see the team draft another receiver with one of its late-round picks as well.

James has done nothing wrong in his career with the 49ers. He's given as much production as one could hope for as a seventh-round draft pick. Unfortunately for him, his services are likely no longer part of the 49ers' future.

Then again, injuries are likely why he was able to make the 49ers active roster last year. One has to wonder if the 49ers would prefer a league minimum veteran replacement in the case of injuries if they will only be utilized as a receiver though.

It is possible James has made a major improvement as a receiver. He has the athletic ability to be very good. I will personally be rooting for it as this would only mean good things for the 49ers.
  • Levin T. Black
  • Written by:
    A graduate of Ball State University in 2009, Levin was a full-time sports journalist for a few years until he transitioned into a more lucrative career. He began writing for Webzone in 2018 in order to scratch his journalist itch.