Special teams was atrocious for the 49ers last season, especially when it came to their return specialists.
The 49ers tried everything. They attempted placing Dante Pettis back there initially, which they immediately regretted. Then they tried their hand with Trent Taylor and that predictably didn't work. Even Jerick McKinnon tried fielding kicks and garnered nothing.
Only Brandon Aiyuk proved to be a net-positive returner, but the 49ers refuse to play him there. That is likely to reduce the chance of injury to him since he plays such a vital role on offense. Since the 49ers refuse to play Aiyuk as a returner, they must look elsewhere with free agency being one of them.
Here are three free agents the 49ers can target as a return specialist.
The most obvious player that comes to mind for a return specialist is Cordarrelle Patterson. Anytime a team knows Patterson is returning kicks, they automatically kick away from him. The guy has taken a kick return for a score at least once in the past three seasons. He's also averaging roughly 30 yards per return, so Patterson has a chance to score and give the 49ers sweet field position.
The only issue with him is that he does not field punts, which is by far the most plagued position for the 49ers. Not to mention that he might not come cheap. If the 49ers are to bring in Patterson, it won't be exclusively to return kicks. Patterson carried the ball 64 times in 2020, so he is familiar with lining up in the backfield. Kyle Shanahan would surely use his potential to the fullest.
This is the free agent return specialist the 49ers should really look to target. Jamal Agnew is a silky-smooth returner who is underrated. He shouldn't cost as much as Patterson. Not only are his jukes disrespectful, but the guy has the greatest trait -- vision. He knows how to read his blocks so profoundly. It is like he operates in slow motion where he just has the knack to pick his spots. With Agnew, the 49ers can have him handle both kick and punt return. His position may be wide receiver, but he has barely sniffed reps on offense.
Last season he averaged close to 13 yards per punt return. Meanwhile, all of the 49ers' returners struggled just to field one, and when they did, they fumbled. Agnew isn't perfect in that department either. He has fumbled at least once every season, but the 49ers should be able to live with it since he has an actual shot to gain positive yards and possibly take one to the house. Agnew has scored three times in the past two seasons, so there is big play capability in him.
Targeting Dwayne Harris would be reaching for the bottom of the barrel here. He just tore his triceps back in November with the Bears and struggled to find a team until about mid-season. Harris could be had for the veteran minimum. That may be all the 49ers are willing to offer a return specialist. Harris is definitely going down the conservative route for the 49ers. He'll be cheap and is a safe option to have return punts and kicks.
The only issue is the 49ers should not expect Harris to give them a score or superb field position at any point. He's not the same player that he once was a few years ago. After all, he is 34 years old and could potentially be viewed as injury prone after his torn triceps. Still, he might be decent enough for the 49ers to overlook that as they have proven to do in the past.