In 2014, the NFL team average for punt returns was 8.9 yards. The 49ers were far below that line, ranking 29th in the league with just 6.5 yards per return.
So, while some teams such as the Falcons, Rams, Eagles and Chiefs were averaging more than 12 yards per punt return and setting up their offenses in good field position or returning punts for scores – those four teams had six touchdowns off returns – the 49ers were getting very little.
So, going into the team’s summer training camp in late July, is their any hope the 49ers will be better in this area?
First, rookie wide receiver Bruce Ellington showed some promise after taking over duties in midseason. He returned 23 punts for an 8.2-yard average. So he could be in the mix. He was injured during spring workouts, but is penciled in to compete for the job returning both kickoffs and punts. He has terrific speed.
Yet for now, according to special teams coach Thomas McGaughey Jr., it appears the frontrunners for the punt return duties are veteran running back Reggie Bush and rookie Jarryd Hayne, the former Australian rugby standout. Those two fielded all the punts during organized team activities (OTAs) and the recent three-day minicamp.
Though Hayne never has played American football, he’s been working out with the 49ers this entire offseason and McGaughey recently told a writer for the team’s website that he’s a good “fielder of the ball” and that “tracking the ball is real natural to him” because of his rugby experience.
Hayne, 27, has good size (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) and speed and has a knack for running in the open field with a ball – as he did Down Under. But he still hasn’t fielded a punt in a game. What he does during the exhibition season will be crucial to his chances of making the roster – especially because he’s listed as a running back and will be in a crowded competition with a group that includes Bush, Carlos Hyde, Kendall Hunter and rookie Mike Davis.
“Without ever playing the game, there’s a learning curve there,” said McGaughey. “It’s going to be another learning curve when he gets hit in the mouth. That’s a whole different deal.”
Bush, however, has returned plenty of punts – and been very good. He’s returned 98 regular-season punts and has a 7.9-yard average. He last returned punts in 2011 with the Saints, when he averaged 8.7 yards. In 2008 for New Orleans, he averaged 13.3 yards per punt return and took three back for TDs during the regular season, and another in the playoffs.
Though Bush is 30, he’s been eager to get back to being a difference-making return man, and he’s impressed McGaughey with his eagerness, work ethic and ability. According to the 49ers, he's as quick as he's ever been.
“He still has the hunger and the desire to be the best,” McGaughey said. “He doesn’t talk about it, he just shows you. He’s an unbelievable worker. I can’t wait to sit back and watch him catch punts in the regular season.”
McGaughey also says Bush wants to show the rest of the NFL “he has the ability to still be a big playmaker.”
From what McGaughey says, it seems Bush is the man to beat for the punt-return duties. Hayne and Ellington, however, will get their chances.