Here comes the San Francisco 49ers calvary.
After head coach Kyle Shanahan explained Wednesday that he’d very surprised if defensive ends Nick Bosa and Dee Ford weren’t healthy for Week 1, which included similar feelings for receiver Brandon Aiyuk and others, Thursday brought more good news for San Francisco.
After breaking his wrist back in the middle of June, the 49ers have finally activated receiver and returner Richie James Jr. after nearly three months of recovery.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) September 3, 2020
To anyone following San Francisco’s past month or two, the return of James is not only encouraging, but somewhat needed. The team has signed a plethora of receivers like Tavon Austin, J.J. Nelson, Kevin White and Jaron Brown, but two of those four names are either on injured reserve or have been released in the case of Brown.
However, the shifting state of the receiver group means that James is walking into a team that has a ton of competition at the position and with only 48 hours or so until final roster cuts, there’s not much James can do in terms of ensuring he has a spot on the final 53-man roster.
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James’ Time with San Francisco
The No. 1 quality that James offers is his work ethic. Mixing time between the offense and special teams, James hasn’t done a ton of flashy work for the 49ers, but has been a solid role player and stepped up to whatever task he’s been given, where that’s as a outside blocker, kick returner or in a proper receiver role.
After a rookie season that saw two starts, 135 yards and a touchdown catch, James followed with a 165-receiving-yard season and another score, which saw him end up with a whopping 19.7 yards per reception over his first two seasons.
Undoubtedly, if James saw more targets, his average would go down, but the numbers speak for himself: when given an opportunity, James has been a solid option.
This is not to mention James’ ability as a returner. With a 97-yard TD return in 2018, the former Middle Tennessee State standout has a solid 23.4 kick return average and has proven to be elusive and explosive.
His punt return average of 7.5 is fairly average, but James did go from 6.3 per punt return in 2018 to 8.0 in 2019. One of James’ best traits is how he’s quickly adapted to the NFL level, and is still just 24-years-old.
Final Roster Chances
James has proven that he has a place on an NFL roster, and it seems like the 49ers really like him as a depth option at receiver and as a returner.
However, with the new wave of receivers joining the team, Shanahan and his staff may have a tough choice to make, but that will primarily depend on if others are able to be a clear-cut better option than James as a returner.
With a name like Austin, who somewhat built his NFL career on elusiveness and speed and has a ton of returning experience, James’ position could be up in the air.
However, don’t be surprised if Shanahan sticks with his guy who has done his job the past two seasons and played a role in the run to the Super Bowl.
Evan Reier is a sportswriter covering the NFL for Heavy.com and local sports for the Montana Standard in Butte, Mont. Reach out to him on Twitter at @evanreier and join our 49ers community at Heavy on 49ers on Facebook.