Every day leading up to the start of training camp set for July 28, 49ers.com will assess a position group on the roster as we get closer to the season. To kick things off, we'll begin with special teams and how the unit can continue to improve in 2020.
Believe it or not, one of the more intriguing position battles heading into training camp later this month surrounds the 49ers special teams unit. Outside of positional locks (kicker, punter and long snapper), the 49ers haven't delegated a bona fide return specialist heading into the season. As camp battles loom, who will return punts and kicks for San Francisco in 2020?
Kicker: Robbie Gould (16th Season)
Punter: Mitch Wishnowsky (2nd Season)
Long Snapper: Kyle Nelson (9th Season)
Return Specialists: Brandon Aiyuk (1st Season), Travis Benjamin (9th Season), Chris Finke (1st Season), Richie James Jr. (3rd Season), Dante Pettis (3rd Season), D.J. Jones Jr. (3rd Season), Trent Taylor (4th Season)
According to Football Outsiders, San Francisco boasted the 12th-ranked special teams unit last season. James Jr. served as the 49ers primary punt returner, averaging 8.0 yards per punt return attempt, tied for the ninth-best mark in the league. However, the 49ers were 27th-ranked in kick returns, averaging 20.5 yards per return in 2019.
Brandon Aiyuk: The second of the 49ers two first-round picks in the draft handled kick return duties at Arizona State last season and averaged 27.1 yards per attempt on 29 returns. On punt returns, Aiyuk averaged 11.7 yards per attempt. He ranked first among PAC-12 returners in both kickoff and punt return averages in 2019. It is possible the 49ers choose to reserve Aiyuk for offensive duties, especially with Deebo Samuel potentially out 12-16 weeks with a broken foot.
Travis Benjamin: On a call with media earlier this offseason, Benjamin revealed his eagerness to fight for a spot in a young and crowded receiver room. Adding to his willingness to compete, Benjamin noted he's prepared to step up on special teams and "make the best out of" his role. Benjamin has proven himself as a returner, recording four punts returned for touchdowns and averaging 10.9 yards per punt return over his eight-year NFL career.
Chris Finke: Undrafted out of Notre Dame, Finke returned 73 punts over his four active seasons with the Fighting Irish for 602 yards and an average of 8.2 yards per return. Finke could see his share of opportunities increase during camp with the number of injuries among San Francisco's returners.
Richie James Jr.: The third-year wideout returned 33 punts for 264 yards and 20 kickoffs for 428 yards last season as the 49ers primary return specialist. While still in the mix for returning duties, James suffered a wrist injury this offseason that is likely to keep him sidelined through training camp and potentially into the regular season. The 49ers will have a better assessment on his return once the team assembles for camp later this month.
Dante Pettis: Prior to his arrival in San Francisco in 2018, Pettis set an NCAA record with the most punts returned for a touchdown with nine, breaking 49ers receivers coach Wes Welker's collegiate record (8). Four of Pettis' nine touchdowns came in 2017 where he averaged 20.4 yards per return. Pettis looks to re-solidify his spot as a receiver and punt returner in camp this month.
D.J. Reed: Reed saw his role on special teams diminish in 2019 after returning 11 kickoffs for 332 yards and an average of 30.2 yards per return the season prior. Reed would be in the mix for returning duties, however the defensive back announced on his Twitter account that he suffered a torn pectoral during an offseason workout and is likely to be out for an extended period of time.
Trent Taylor: Prior to a foot injury that forced him to miss the entire 2019 campaign, Taylor returned 29 punts for 359 yards between 2017-18 for an average of 9.0 yards per return. Taylor, who has been cleared to return to the field, appears to be on pace to make an impact this season as a receiver and a returner.