Simonton release raises questions at kick returner

On second thought, forget that great idea about Ken Simonton becoming the 49ers' new weapon on special teams as a return specialist. The Niners waived the rookie from Oregon State on Tuesday along with three other undrafted rookie free agents, taking one top contender out of the mix at kick returner and leaving the team close to the 80-man roster (with NFL Europe exemptions) it will take to training camp in July.

The Niners also released cornerback Ryan Fernandez, defensive tackle Ryan Fletcher and tight end Mike Hart. But neither of those names figured as prominently in the team's plans as Simonton, who was expected to make a legitimate push for a roster berth when he was signed in April.

The Niners gave second-year cornerback Jimmy Williams a long look returning kicks at their last full-squad minicamp at the beginning of this month, sessions that were only partially attended by incumbent kick returner Vinny Sutherland, who left the team before the final day of practice to check into an alcohol rehabilitation program in Florida. The Niners also checked out undrafted free-agent receiver Mike Jennings in the role.

Sutherland - whose spot on the roster appeared precarious after his DUI arrest in May and the resulting disclosure of previous legal problems - will get a legitimate chance in training camp to keep his job returning both punts and kickoffs. The Niners are considering Jonas Lewis and Paul Smith, among Sutherland and others, to return kickoffs. Lewis and Smith both have performed that role in the past with the team.

The Niners, however, ranked 30th in the NFL - next to last - in punt-return average last season, and are intent on upgrading that area. Before his problems with the law, Sutherland had looked like a much-improved player in April minicamp, but even then the Niners were hoping to find somebody who could unseat him - or at least seriously push him - in the role. Simonton initially appeared to be a strong contender, but instead ended up looking better as a running back in minicamps. And the Niners don't need any more tailbacks. Simonton did not display the breakaway speed needed to return kicks at this level.

The Niners, who tried several rookies in the role at training camp last year, may consider bringing in a few more this summer to give a look at specifically as kick returners during training camp. These won't be high-profile names, and will be apart from the veteran free agents the team also is considering at receiver.

Fernandez, Fletcher and Hart all had their moments in minicamp action, but the team is stocked at those positions and each was just too far down the depth chart to have any realistic shot at making an impact. Hart has good size and impressive credentials coming out of college, but he was no match for sixth-round draft pick Mark Anelli, a big body who has not only been impressive as a blocker, but also as a sure-handed receiver in passing routes. He'll give veteran Justin Swift a good battle for playing time this fall behind starter Eric Johnson, and reminds a lot of people of Greg Clark, the tight end Anelli will replace on the roster.

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