SANTA CLARA – Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan has long histories with two players who are new to the 49ers’ starting lineup.
Slot receiver Jeremy Kerley and linebacker Nick Bellore spent four seasons apiece on Ryan’s teams with the New York Jets. Kerley is the 49ers’ leading receiver and punt returner, while Bellore is in line to make the second start of his six-year NFL career on Sunday when the 49ers travel to face the Bills.
Kerley has been a find for the 49ers, who added him late in the exhibition season in a trade with the Detroit Lions for guard Brandon Thomas. The 49ers acquired Kerley to fill the void left with Bruce Ellington's season-ending hamstring injury.
“Great kid, man. He’s fantastic,” Ryan said of Kerley on a conference call Wednesday with Bay Area reporters. “I loved his work ethic. He’s a guy, he just loves to play football. (He) doesn’t like being a punt returner too much, but he likes everything else.”
Ryan said he pursued Kerley as a free agent with the Bills, but he went to Detroit, at least in part due to his reluctance to return punts.
“Trust me, that was one of the reasons he never came here because I was going to say, ‘You have to be our primary punt returner.’ I think he had enough of that,” Ryan said.
Kerley is the only player to return a punt for the 49ers through five games. He has averaged 8.1 yards on seven punts while making 14 fair catches.
Bellore spent his time on Ryan’s team as a special-teams player and backup linebacker. Ryan cited Bellore’s Wonderlic test score of 36 as a reason he felt comfortable with him as a backup.
“If somebody went down, he could step right in,” Ryan said. ‘He could call the defenses. He could run the defense and he’s a good player. He’s been a tremendous special teams player for a long time, but he’s also a good defensive player.
“Back with the Jets, he wasn’t going to play over Bart Scott or David Harris, I can assure you. But it was comforting having that guy who could back up both of those spots and I was confident he could play well but not at that level.”
Bellore made his first NFL start last week. He took over for middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who is out for the season with a torn Achilles.
Ryan spoke about the Bills outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who started just 16 games in nine previous NFL seasons. As the full-time starter, Alexander leads the league with seven sacks. He never had more than 2.5 sacks in any previous season.
When asked if Bellore has the ability to blossom as a starter, like Alexander, Ryan was not ready to label him as a potential Pro Bowl player.
“Nick Bellore is a good football player,” Ryan said. “There’s no question, but nobody’s going to think he’s NaVorro Bowman, I can promise you that.”