The 49ers on Thursday night had the most-productive game from one of their wide receivers in more than seven years.
Richie James, who caught nine passes for 184 yards, is the 49ers’ No. 4 wide receiver.
The 49ers played Week 9 without their top three wide receivers. And for the past two seasons, the team’s fourth receiver has rarely gotten onto the field and held no significant role in the offense.
If there’s one positive thing that came out of the 49ers’ 34-17 Week 9 loss to the Green Bay Packers, it’s that James should have an expanded role in the offense from this point forward.
And everyone benefits from James mixing into the offense to receive more and more playing time, especially Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. There is an element of diminishing returns for wide receivers. The more they play, the less-effective they could become due to the fatigue.
Samuel, Aiyuk and No. 3 receiver Kendrick Bourne were unavailable for the game Thursday, which opened the door for James to excel.
Bourne had a false-positive COVID-19 test, which placed him on the reserve/COVID-19 list until he tested negative on back-to-back days.
Samuel and Aiyuk, along with left tackle Trent Williams, were also placed on the COVID-19 list due to their close contact with Bourne. Each also had to pass back-to-back tests before being allowed back into team activities. (Samuel would not have been able to play, either way, due to a hamstring injury.)
Coach Kyle Shanahan said he had confidence in James before the game. And he still has the same level of faith in him.
“I've always had a lot of confidence in Richie,” Shanahan said. “That's why he was one of the four receivers who dressed for the Super Bowl.
“Richie had some bad luck with injuries this year. If he would have been healthy in training camp with Deebo being down and Aiyuk being down, he would've started Week 1.”
James sustained a fractured wrist during an offseason workout and missed a large portion of training camp. He then suffered a hamstring injury in the 49ers' Week 1 game against Arizona and was placed on injured reserve, keeping him out of the next four games.
Before an ankle injury sidelined him for the game against Seattle, James had worked into the No. 4 role, ahead of slot receiver Trent Taylor. But James entered the game Thursday night without a reception this season.
Last year, he appeared in all 16 games, primarily as a return specialist, and caught just six passes for 165 yards. He had more than a year's production in just one game.
When James rolled up 184 yards in receiving against Green Bay, it was the 49ers’ best day for a wide receiver since Anquan Boldin had 208 yards receiving against the Packers in the season opener of 2013.
“I kind of expected him to do what he did because he is that type of player,” Shanahan said. “I was just glad he was able to make it through the game because I know he was coming off an injury, too.”
James was only 50-50 to play due to his ankle injury when the preparation for the game began. After Aiyuk was ruled out, the 49ers quickly shifted the game plan from focusing on getting the ball to Aiyuk to an emphasis for quarterback Nick Mullens to target James.
“Richie's just a great football player,” Mullens said after the game. “I've thought he's a really good football player since he's been here and he got his opportunities (Thursday).
“He's been pretty steady since he's been here, just always making plays when he has the ball in his hands. He proved that once again. I think he's a great target and he always does a good job."