First, Deebo Samuel. Now, Richie James.
Injuries to the two 49ers wide receivers could open doors for others to step up during San Francisco’s upcoming training camp.
It was reported late last week that Samuel suffered a fracture in his left foot. That was followed by news that James fractured his right wrist. Though both Samuel and James are expected to eventually return to contribute in 2020, snaps and opportunities will go to other players this summer and perhaps early in the upcoming regular-season schedule.
Samuel is coming off a fine rookie season when he evolved to become the team’s most explosive wide receiver. James isn’t nearly as big a piece of the passing game, with just six catches in 2019 and nine in his rookie year of 2018. But James’ absence creates a hole on special teams, where he averaged 9.8 yards on 49 punt returns this past season and 16 yards on seven kickoffs.
Chris Biderman, who covers the 49ers for the Sacramento Bee, says the injuries to Samuel and James could be a blessing for rookies Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings and several holdovers who were either injured or underperformed last year: Dante Pettis, Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd. Former Charger Travis Benjamin, too, is in the mix.
As talented as Aiyuk is – the 49ers have high hopes for him after taking him in the first round out of Arizona State – it might be too much to expect him to step right in and be a success – especially given the fact the coronavirus pandemic has shut down the team’s offseason practices. Players are working out together without coaches, but this season it may be more difficult for rookies to immediately contribute in big ways.
Wrote Biderman of Aiyuk: “It would be hard to bank on him as a fulltime starter as a rookie without a traditional offseason program, given the depth of (head coach Kyle) Shanahan’s complicated playbook.”
Pettis could profit. He was an outstanding punt returner at the University of Washington, but hasn’t been used much in that capacity in the NFL. In two seasons he has just nine punt returns with an average of just 3 yards. In college, Pettis returned 90 punts for an average of 14.2 yards and took nine punts back for touchdowns.