Brandon Aiyuk may finally see some looks as a punt returner.
There is just one stipulation to it and that is to prove himself as the 49ers best punt returner. When asked if he would be more willing to allow Aiyuk to return punts, Shanahan wasn't so keen on anointing him in that role.
“I mean, I hope so," said Shanahan. "Hopefully he can prove that and get the offense down more and own that to where it doesn't mess him up. But you know, he's trying to prove that he's one of our best receivers right now, so he can get out there in that way. And hopefully he can prove he is one of our best punt returners, too. Just like everyone, I think last year was really tough on rookies because they didn't get any offseason, they didn't get a training camp and they didn't really realize that. And they know what they know and that was their first year. So Brandon coming back this year, I feel like he's got a chance to be built up the right way."
There is a right and wrong side to this. Aiyuk IS the 49ers best punt returner and Shanahan knows this. That has been evident since training camp last season when Aiyuk would get some reps in there. Aiyuk is just so elusive and smart with the ball in his hands that he would help the 49ers avoid negative yardage like they did so many times last year.
Yet, for whatever reason, Shanahan refuses to give Aiyuk some punt returns. Aiyuk could be the difference of breaking a tie in a game or potentially providing a spark with a sweet return. Shanahan doesn't have to give him the full-time role, but plenty of head coaches are allowing their best player to get looks as a punt returner. The only real concern here that is obvious is exposure to injury. However, many times when a returner gets lit up is because that is just a basic special teams player. Aiyuk is an intelligent enough player that he wouldn't put himself in those situations and would be able to avoid them more than the average punt returner.
Aiyuk himself even wants to contribute there. “I’m taking it personal," he said, "making sure the ball never hits the ground (in practice).” You just have to admire how much he wants to help the 49ers in other ways, yet Shanahan wants to limit Aiyuk. Again, just let him see two or three returns in a game if the game is relatively close. Ideally, if they are blowing teams out again like in 2019, then Aiyuk won't be needed.
Maximize your best players. Do not limit them.
Aiyuk should be the 49ers punt returner.