Biggest surprises from 49ers' initial 53-man roster

Dontae Johnson

Training camp has come and gone, and the 49ers have decided which 53 players they plan on taking to battle in Week 1 against the Detroit Lions. 

Tuesday was cut-down day throughout the NFL, as teams finalized their 53-man rosters ahead of the 1 p.m. (Pacific) deadline. 

The 49ers were one of the last teams to announce their roster, but when they did, it came with a few surprises. 

Parting ways with a 2020 draft pick 

It's not earth-shattering by any means, but it was a little surprising to see guard/tackle Tom Compton make the roster over 2020 fifth-round pick Colton McKivitz. Surprising in the sense that the 49ers are parting ways with a recent draft pick, one whom they had hoped would develop into either a solid depth piece on the offensive line or possibly even a swing tackle. 

The 49ers are loyal to their draft selections, sometimes even to a fault. In McKivitz's case though, his performance on the field just wasn't good enough to edge out the veteran Compton. 

Suiting up for 14 games (three starts) last season, McKivitz earned an overall grade of 53.1 from Pro Football Focus. Not good at all. 

That being said, the 25-year-old was drafted by the 49ers for a reason, and given their loyalty to players they've spent draft capital on, it was a little surprising to see them give up on a young player they loved just a year ago. Reading between the lines, it seems as if they're valuing veteran experience (Compton) over potential upside (McKivitz) here.  


Saying goodbye to an old friend ... for now

At the cornerback position, the 49ers opted to retain newly acquired Davontae Harris over "49ers legend" (some say sarcastically) Dontae Johnson. 

Johnson's tenure with the 49ers has been nothing short of a roller coaster ride. Selected by the 49ers in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, Johnson played four seasons with San Francisco (starting all 16 games in 2017) before signing with the rival Seattle Seahawks prior to the 2018 season. 

Finding his way back to the 49ers on a one-year contract prior to the 2019 season, Johnson was cut a few months later only to once again return to the 49ers mid-season before being cut again -- only to return again. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth he went. 

The 49ers re-signed Johnson prior to the 2020 season, and he stuck around all year, earning yet another contract this past offseason. 

Just to put that into perspective, Johnson has signed six different contracts with the 49ers throughout his eight-year career. Clearly, San Francisco has a thing for him, because he keeps finding his way back home one way or another. 

That is until Tuesday when the 49ers (once again) parted ways with Johnson ... for now? 

This was a surprising move because Johnson is a veteran corner who provides some stable depth behind what is expected to be a young cornerback room with rookies Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir. Tallying a decent 67.7 PFF grade in 2020, Johnson always has been rather consistent, but with a pretty low ceiling. 

Acquiring Harris just a couple of weeks ago, the 49ers are opting to go with a player who hasn't proven much in the NFL, but has nice upside, as displayed in the joint practices with the Los Angeles Chargers. 

So, who's returning punts?

Richie James, Travis Benjamin, River Cracraft and Nsimba Webster were the four players to return punts during the preseason. None of them are on the roster anymore. 

That begs the question: Whose job is it? 

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Short answer: Probably Brandon Aiyuk with a little bit of Mohamed Sanu mixed in as well. 

James consistently has been one of the most underrated players on the 49ers since 2018. His big-play ability resulted in a combined 38 receptions for 394 career yards with San Francisco. That's an average of 18.1 yards per reception throughout his career. His 2020 average of 17.1 yards per reception would have been tied for the fourth-most among all NFL wide receivers if he had qualified. 

Unfortunately for James, he never really broke through as a punt returner. Averaging just 7.3 yards per return throughout his career, he consistently has been below average in that department. For his overall game, the writing was on the wall after a very disappointing training camp and preseason filled with drops. 

Cracraft (8.0 yards per return) was slightly better at returning punts than James last season, but still not very impressive. Webster, who showed big-play ability this preseason for the 49ers, also was disappointing as a punt returner with the Rams last season, averaging 7.4 yards per return. 


Benjamin's track record suggested he could make an impact in both the passing and returning game. With 208 career receptions for 3,143 yards and 19 TDs and a 10.9-yard career average as a punt returner, many viewed Benjamin as the leading candidate to take over James' role. 

That just leaves Aiyuk, who has been getting plenty of work as a returner in practice this summer, and should receive most of the work on special teams. The 49ers opted not to deploy him in the return game this preseason, likely due to injury concerns, but after averaging a very impressive 13.0 yards on just two returns last season, the job seems to be his to lose. 

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