It stands out the way aberrations are wont to do. What the heck got into Richie James the night of Nov. 5, 2020, when the nondescript third-year 49ers wide receiver erupted for nine catches for 184 yards and one touchdown in a loss to the Packers?
Before that, James had just 15 career NFL receptions.
“It ain’t something that just happened, pop out of nowhere,” James said after a recent Giants training camp practice. “I look at that game as something I’ve shown I can do. I can get 100-something a game if you throw me the ball that many times.”
James was targeted 13 times by backup quarterback Nick Mullens in his breakout showing — pressed into playing time with George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Kendrick Bourne and Brandon Aiyuk all out of action.
As it turned out, that performance was not a breakout at all. James caught just 14 more passes the rest of that season, then missed all of 2021 following knee surgery. His time in the Bay Area was done, and in late March he signed a one-year deal with the Giants, one of the early moves by new general manager Joe Schoen.
At the very least, James is in the mix as a kickoff and punt returner. That might be short-changing him. James, in the spring and thus far this summer, has been one of the most productive receivers in camp — his 5-foot-9, 185-pound body darting in and out, wearing the No. 80 jersey number that Victor Cruz donned to create so many highlight film moments. There should be an expectation that roster turnover will be comprehensive in the first year for Schoen and head coach Brian Daboll. New is in, and James is new.
“I think I’m a weapon anywhere,” he said. “That’s just how I feel. Give me the ball in my hands and I’m gonna show you what I can do. Whether it’s [yards after catch] or catching the ball or handing the ball off, I feel I can do anything.”
James did everything at Middle Tennessee State, where in his first two seasons he caught 212 passes for 2,959 yards and 20 touchdowns. He never gained a foothold on offense with the 49ers, though, but he did establish that he is a threat with the ball in his hands, as he averaged 18.1 yards on his 38 career receptions. He also had a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown as a rookie and an 81-yard return in 2019.
Is there a place for him with the Giants? The top three receiver spots are set with Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney and rookie Wan’Dale Robinson getting almost all of the first-team reps. Veteran Sterling Shepard, coming off surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon, is expected to start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list. There is competition from returnees CJ Board, Collin Johnson, David Sills and newcomer Robert Foster. It could come down to if Daboll and his staff prefer James, 26, or Darius Slayton, 24, entering his fourth season and set to play on the final year of his contract.
From a financial standpoint, the new front-office regime is going to have to see more from Slayton to justify his nearly $2.6 million salary cap hit for 2022. James comes in at $1 million against the cap. For a team that is less than $5 million under the cap, saving more than $1.5 million by going with James over Slayton is hardly insignificant.
Slayton this summer has made plays but has been inconsistent, a trait that developed after his excellent rookie year. James was the more impressive receiver in the early stages of camp.
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“Definitely had some drops in there, had some moments I didn’t love but had some moments I did love,” Slayton said. “As a receiver you can’t dwell on the bad, because the bad’s gonna come for all of us at some point. You got to try to get past those in your mind and make the next one.”
James, working with the second-team offense in Friday night’s Blue-White scrimmage at MetLife Stadium, showed his quickness hauling in a 5-yard touchdown pass from Tyrod Taylor. Slayton worked with Davis Webb and the third team.
The way James moves around the field, he has some similar athletic traits to Toney and Robinson. Coming from the run-oriented 49ers, James said he feels there is more freedom and opportunity with Daboll’s offense. He has special teams value as a returner, and if he proves he can fill a need on offense, James will have a role and a job.
“I can do anything,” James said. “That’s how I look at it. I let everybody try to box me but I don’t box myself. Pick your poison, really.”