SANTA CLARA -- After a solid rookie season and the belief he would continue to get better with more experience, Bruce Ellington entered the offseason as the heavy favorite to be the 49ers’ return specialist.
But Ellington has largely remained on the sideline rehabbing muscle pulls in both leg. His absence from practice has provided a major opening for Jarryd Hayne to win the specialist role.
Ellington averaged a steady 8.2 yards on 23 punt returns with 12 fair catches. He muffed one punt but quickly recovered it as a rookie. Ellington had little experience in that discipline during college, and it seemed likely he would improve and become more of a big-play threat in his second season.
But 49ers first-year special-teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey is in a difficult position trying to evaluate Ellington against Hayne, Reggie Bush and rookie DeAndrew White when all he can do is watch film of Ellington from last year.
“That’s kind of my assessment of him, last year, because I haven’t seen much of him this year,” McGaughey said. “Bruce, the couple times he’s out there he looked really good, but I just got to get him healthy. That’s the most important thing.
“(I) love the kid, just want to see him healthy so he can go out there and compete with the rest of the guys, just kind of see exactly how much he’s progressed during the offseason.”
Ellington would also be in competition with Quinton Patton for the job as the 49ers’ No. 3 receiver, but he has been out of action for nearly two weeks and does not figure to suit up Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys for the second exhibition game.
Hayne is a work in progress as a running back -- where he is likely the No. 5 player on the depth chart. But the former Australia rugby league star win a spot based solely on his contributions in the return game?
McGaughey said that’s a question only general manager Trent Baalke and coach Jim Tomsula can answer.
“All that stuff goes through Trent and Jim, but he’s a talented guy,” McGaughey said of Hayne. “Obviously, you want to have talented guys on your roster so we’ll see how it all shakes out. He’s a joy to coach. He’s just a hard-working guy. The natural skillset is definitely there.”