When Michael Crabtree finally signed his contract after sitting out five games last year, the 49ers parted ways with return specialist Allen Rossum. This left a dearth of talent in the return game for the team, and while Arnaz Battle, Josh Morgan, Delanie Walker and others tried to fill the void, their efforts were met with marginal success at best.
Battle, as stated earlier, is now gone to Pittsburgh, and for a brief while this offseason, the return game options were looking pretty bleak in San Francisco.
As pointed out very aptly by my fellow FC Joseph Burkey in his most recent article, the 49ers have built an incredible stable of return talent for 2010.
With the possible exception of Allen Rossum, you have to go all the way back to Deion “Primetime” Sanders’ brief stint with the team to find a return man in a 49er uniform that struck fear in the hearts of opposing special teams coaches. Now the 49ers have two.
The acquisition of Ted Ginn Jr. from Miami for a fifth round pick gave the 49ers an immediate threat in the return game, and at quite a bargain to boot.
Ginn has failed to live up to his No. 9 overall draft status thus far in his NFL career, but he has shown some promise returning kicks, culminating in his performance against the New York Jets on November 1, 2009, when he became the first player in NFL history to return two kickoffs of 100 yards or longer for touchdowns in the same game.
Coach Sing has publicly stated that he wants Ginn to contribute as a receiver, but given his past in the NFL, that could take some time to materialize. His early contributions figure to be largely in the return game.
You might not recognize LeRoy Vann’s name right away, but chances are you saw highlights of him on SportsCenter at some point, clad in Florida A&M’s green and orange, returning yet another kick or punt to the house.
Vann left Florida A&M holding virtually every significant NCAA return record, with six overall, including 11 career touchdowns (eight kick returns, three punt returns) and over 1,000 yards career in both kick and punt returns (the only NCAA player to hold such a distinction).
It remains to be seen how his skills translate from Division I Championship Subdivision Florida A&M to the NFL, but one encouraging sign is that he does not rely on “razzle dazzle” moves that often fail to work in the pros (ala Peter Warrick).
Should Ginn or Vann not work out, or become injured, the 49ers have no fewer than five other viable options to replace them.
Phillip Adams, Tramaine Brock, and Kyle Williams all spent significant time returning kicks in college, albeit with varied success and a very devastating muffed punt by Williams against the University of Arizona in the Territorial War in 2009, allowing the Wildcats to kick the game-winning field goal.
In addition the 49ers have Josh Morgan and Delanie Walker returning to the fold, both of whom have shown flourishes of promise in the return game in limited professional opportunities.
Special Teams Coach Kurt Shottenheimer will have a lot of fun developing return schemes with such a diverse stable of weapons to draw from. I do not envy the coaches who have to game plan against a kick return team with Ted Ginn Jr. and LeRoy Vann dropped deep.
Kick the ball out of bounds and set the 49ers up on the 40. That might just be the best possible outcome.
They may have a few vulnerabilities, but the 49ers stand to be a much-improved team in 2010. Anything short of a playoff berth will be a tremendous disappointment.
Keep the Faith!