49ers Add ‘Big Play’ Returner to Potentially Replace $4 Million Free Agent Signee

Ronnie Bell, San Francisco 49ers

Getty Ronnie Bell now of the San Francisco 49ers celebrating for the Michigan Wolverines.

After the San Francisco 49ers made three selections in the final round of the 2023 NFL draft to round off their weekend, John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan took to the podium to discuss their team’s selections. One of those seventh-round picks in question was Ronnie Bell, the former Michigan Wolverines standout who missed all but one game in 2021 due to an ACL tear. Though he returned in 2022, appearing in 14 games and recording a new career-high in receptions and receiving yards at 62 and 889, respectively, one area Lynch liked in Bell’s game the most was his ability as a returner, as the team could use a backup behind Ray-Ray McCloud.

“I think not the biggest package, but real tough, physical and gritty player with the ball in his hands,” Lynch said via 49ers Webzone. “He made a lot of big plays in big moments. The return ability is a big thing. We had [WR] Ray-Ray [McCloud] and behind Ray-Ray we didn’t really have anyone. BA [WR Brandon Aiyuk] has done it before but we wanted another returner. Really, he made it just on those traits. He’s a guy that, the more we watched, the more we liked. He did it at the right times, too. Ronnie was a great addition.”

While Bell didn’t return many kicks or punts during his college career, bringing back just 13 punts for 150 yards and a pair of kicks all the way back in 2018 for 53 yards, adding his name on multiple spots across the depth chart not only helps the team moving forward, in 2023 and when McCloud is a free agent in 2024, but also helps his chances of making the roster as a rookie, which is far from guaranteed as a late seventh-round pick.

Ronnie Bell Believes he can Contribute on Special Teams

Addressing reporters himself following the draft, Bell was asked about his recovered knee and if he’s comfortable contributing to the 49ers as a return man. Though Bell didn’t do much returning for the Wolverines in 2022, he’s more than comfortable to do so if called up, as his knee continues to feel stronger.

“Well, yeah I definitely want to be a part of return game, but as far as my knee, I’ve done nothing but feel stronger as the time has gone by,” Bell said via 49ers Webzone. “Last year has just showed me throughout the time, I am still getting stronger, even though I felt 100% in the beginning, throughout the season I started to feel even better than I did in the beginning. So, I just feel like I’m just going to continue to get stronger with time.”

In 2022, McCloud returned 33 punts for 365 yards and brought back 26 more kicks for 599 yards, both of which eclipse Bell’s entire production as a return man at Michigan. Still, if Bell flashes at the position, and on offense, too, he could step into a bigger role in 2024, when McCloud will be an unrestricted free agent.

Ronnie Bell Checks Many of the San Francisco 49ers’ Boxes

Discussing what he likes about Bell’s game coming out of Michigan, Shanahan complimented Bell for his consistency, with the collegiate Wolverine checking many of the boxes the 49ers look for in a wide receiver.

“That he went to Michigan. [Laughs] Just how consistent of a football player he is,” Shanahan said. “I believe he was a captain and a coach’s son. Not that that means much, but he plays like you want that to be like. He was just so consistent. A special teams player and a good returner. He did really everything they asked. He was very good in his routes. There was not one thing that he struggled with.

“When you can put him into a group, and whatever his skill set is, I think he can fit into any position and he seemed like one of the more reliable wideouts that we watched in all of college football. We want guys to be good over time and I feel like he’s a guy who has been as good of a football player as there is in college. We have to see how he adjusts at this level but if he can play at this level the way that he did in college, we’re going to have a really good football player.”

Nicknamed “Ronnie the Route Runner” for his ability to, well, run routes effectively, Bell was projected to be selected in the sixth round by Lance Zierlein of NFL.com. Landing his services with the seventh-to-last pick in the 2023 NFL draft could prove to be an exceptional value should Bell live up to Lynch and Shanahan’s expectations.

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