Back in 2011, the 49ers had some terrific special teams performers. Ted Ginn Jr. returned both a kickoff and punt for touchdowns that season, place-kicker David Akers was terrific and punter Andy Lee, like Akers, was voted first-team All-Pro.
Since that season, however, the 49ers have had their ups and downs on special teams. Since Ginn, in fact, San Francisco hasn’t returned a punt for a touchdown in the regular season.
That could change in 2018.
Going into training camp, the Niners will have a strong cast of candidates to return punts, including second-round draft pick Dante Pettis of Washington, who set a major-college record in his career with the Huskies by returning nine punts for touchdowns and led the nation in yards per return last season, at 20.4. Plus, cornerback D.J. Reed of Kansas State was taken in the fifth round, and he was No. 2 in the nation last season, averaging 14.9 yards per return. Also vying for punt-return duty is second-year wide receiver Trent Taylor, who did a solid job as a rookie, averaging 9.4 yards per return, which ranked ninth in the NFL, and Victor Bolden, a wide receiver who returned both a punt and kickoff for touchdowns in last summer’s exhibition games.
After selecting Reed, 49ers general manager John Lynch noted his return ability.
“Another great returner,” Lynch told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch. “We’ve got a lot of those, and that’s a good thing.”
As good as Taylor was in 2017, it would seem Pettis is the front runner to win the punt-return job. His outstanding speed, instincts and ability to find the holes his blockers make allowed Pettis to be college football’s most exciting return man and should give him an opportunity to earn that role with the 49ers.
“My best attribute is my decision making and aggressiveness,” Pettis told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. “I try to catch everything. It will be a little bit of a transition (to the NFL). I will not be able to just run around people and I have to trust my blocking even more.”
Pettis, the son of former Gold Glove outfielder Gary Pettis (who played much of his career with the Angels), doesn’t want to be type cast as a return man, however. He was a fine and prolific receiver at Washington, and is able to play both slot and outside receiver. Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan believes he can be an outstanding wideout in the NFL.
“He’s extremely talented, a very good route runner,” Shanahan told the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows. “He can separate and has extremely good hands – very quick, fast enough to run all the routes. And when you meet him, you see how smart he is, how hard he works and you get why he’s the full package.”
Reed, meanwhile, is terrific in his own right as a returner. This past season, he was first-team all-Big 12 Conference as both a defensive back and returner. He had the 14.9-yard average on 17 punt returns (with one TD) and a 34.2-yard average (second best in the nation) on 17 kickoff returns (with one TD). It’s possible that Pettis could win the punt return role, with Reed earning the kickoff job.