Should the San Francisco 49ers Find a New Return Man in the 2013 NFL Draft?

By Brandon Burnett
Denard Robinson Michigan Wolverines
Kim Klement – USA TODAY Sports

Wide receiver and return specialist Ted Ginn recently signed a one-year deal with the Carolina Panthers after spending the past three seasons serving as the primary return man for the San Francisco 49ers. With Ginn out of the picture, the front office in San Fran must now decide whether there is already a replacement in town, or to search for Ginn’s successor in the upcoming 2013 NFL Draft.

Even though Ginn’s 2012 campaign wasn’t as productive in the return game as we’re used to seeing, the six-year vet is an extremely sure-handed returner, and that alone will make finding his replacement a challenging task.

Running back Kendall Hunter and wide receiver Kyle Williams have each seen time fielding kicks or punts (or in Williams’ case, both) over the past couple of seasons. Second-year RB LaMichael James returned 14 kickoffs as a rookie in 2012 after season-ending injuries to Hunter and Williams and showed he could probably handle the responsibilities as well or even better than either of the two previously mentioned players.

Plus, Williams has had trouble with ball security in the past, particularly in the 2011 NFC Championship Game loss to the New York Giants. Hunter will likely continue to see an increased workload out of the backfield as Frank Gore‘s NFL career winds down, though he hasn’t shown many signs of slowing yet.

So, out of the potential options that have been discussed, James seems like the most enticing choice to at least handle kickoff return duties, and maybe even punt returns as well. Returning punts, however, is a much more difficult task, and the former Oregon Duck has yet to field a punt as a pro and only returned 16 of them during his collegiate days.

So, with plenty of potential options on the roster, but no sure-fire answer, should the Niners add more competition to the mix through the draft? The idea sounds exciting, but probably unrealistic. For starters, there just isn’t much available in that regard. Plus, if San Fran were to draft some sort of return specialist, he would likely have to be able to contribute at another position, or at least show the ability to do so down the road.

Ginn couldn’t cut it as a receiver in the 49ers’ offense, and that’s likely a big reason he’s no longer around. The 5’11”, 180-pound speedster hauled in 128 passes during his three seasons with the Miami Dolphins, but never caught more than 19 balls in any of his three with San Fran.

Ace Sanders out of South Carolina might be the top choice if the Niners were indeed to draft a position player with return capabilities. The WR returned 29 punts in 2012 for 429 yards and two touchdowns. CB Tyrann Mathieu is another option with experience in the return game, but he hasn’t played in a year, has loads of character concerns and will likely demand a higher-round pick due to his impressive combine and excellent ball skills.

Then there’s Denard Robinson, the former Michigan Wolverine and freakishly fast QB who will be trying to make it in the pros as a wide receiver or potentially even a return man. Robinson was arguably the fastest and most dangerous open field runner in the game during his years at the collegiate level, but never returned a kick or punt and would be a risky option if taken too early.

The Niners could have their eye on others as well, or maybe they’re satisfied with what they already have and will simply be addressing other needs throughout the draft. We’ll just have to wait and see. But, if one could be had in the fourth round or later, I think grabbing a dynamic athlete with return capabilities would be a smart move for San Fran, if nothing else just to add some competition in training camp.

Finding the right one could add yet another dimension to an already dangerous team, which would be great news for San Francisco and terrible news for the rest of the league.


Brandon Burnett is a San Francisco 49ers writer for Follow him on Twitter @B_Burnett49er, or add him to your network on Google.

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