The San Francisco 49ers picked up wide receiver/returner Nsimba Webster on Wednesday, one day after he was released by the Los Angeles Rams. That’s pretty much the entire story.
With the kickoff rules updated in the last few years to make long returns exceptionally unlikely, the return position has been devalued to the point of almost being irrelevant. Last season, three players had at least 30 kickoff returns, and seven players scored a touchdown on a return.
In 2010, 23 players had at least 30 kickoff returns, and 20 players had more than 35 kickoff returns, which is how many 2020 returns leader Cordarrelle Patterson had last season. A decade ago, 10 players had at least 50 kickoff returns and Marc Mariani led the NFL with 60 of his own. That season, 16 players scored at least one kickoff return touchdown, while three players had two, and two players (Jacoby Ford, Leon Washington) had three kickoff return touchdowns on their own.
Numbers like that are a distant memory and we’ll never know how productive Webster could have been if he had started his career 10 years sooner.
Punt returners have a lot more opportunities than kick returners do, but their position has also been held back from the bigger numbers that they were putting up in yesteryear. Because of that, Webster and players like him can almost only be judged on their abilities to safely field punts and kickoffs, as well as their potential as receivers and running backs.
Because Webster has completed two NFL seasons already and only earned eight offensive snaps in that time, Sean McVay had to turn to another number to value him and that number may have been fumbles; Webster had three fumbles in 2020.
That’s the one part of the job that you have to nail if you’re going to stick on a roster as a returner in 2021.
Last season, San Francisco was led in kickoff returns by Jerick McKinnon, who had all of 12 of them over 16 games. Trent Taylor led the 49ers with nine punt returns for 112 yards. Webster will now compete to win one or both of those jobs.