Relieved of his special-teams duties Sunday, Kyle Williams was relieved of his roster spot Tuesday.
The 49ers released Williams, infamous among many 49ers fans for his mistakes in the NFC Championship Game in January 2012, and cornerback Perrish Cox.
The team added rookie linebacker Nick Moody, who broke his hand in Week 1 against the Packers, to the 53-man roster. But the transactions were more connected to getting two other players – running back LaMichael James and cornerback Eric Wright – onto the field.
Williams was leading the league in fair catches and had a blunder-filled outing against the Jaguars in Week 8. James took over on punt returns Sunday against the Panthers, returning three for 35 yards. Anthony Dixon handled kickoff returns. The only time Dixon ventured from the end zone, however, turned out to be a mistake – he was stopped at the 12-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
Williams, 25, started five games at wide receiver this season but ranked fourth on the team with 12 receptions and fifth in receiving yards with 113.
The 49ers added one wideout, Mario Manningham, to the lineup Sunday and they expect to have another, Michael Crabtree, back by this time next month. To this point, the 49ers have gotten very little production from any receiver other than Anquan Boldin, and through the first nine games Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis have been the only 49ers receivers with touchdown catches.
“Decisions like these are always difficult, especially at this time of year,” general manager Trent Baalke said in a statement. “Kyle and Perrish have represented the 49ers’ organization very well, both on and off the field. We appreciate their dedication and contributions and wish them all the best.”
Cox’s release paves the way for Wright, who was inactive Sunday, to take over Cox’s former role in the 49ers’ dime defense. That alignment, which is used when opponents have four receivers on the field, likely will be needed at times Sunday against the Saints, who have the NFC's top-ranked passing offense.
The 49ers signed Cox, 26, early in the 2012 offseason after he was found not guilty in a sexual assault case in Colorado. Cox served as the backup to Carlos Rogers in nickel defense situations and had roles in the dime defenses and on special teams. Wright can play both on the outside at cornerback and inside in a nickel role, and he presumably now becomes Rogers' backup at nickel.
With a number of cornerbacks, including Wright, set to become free agents in March, Baalke and the 49ers must decide which players to bring back. Wright, Tarell Brown and Tramaine Brock are scheduled to be free agents in March. Rogers also has a huge salary cap figure, and Chris Culliver is coming back from ACL surgery.
Cox also was one of the few 49ers with experience returning punts. With Williams also gone, James is the only 49er to have done so in a regular-season game, and his experience is limited to the three returns Sunday.
Williams gained notoriety for fumbling away two punt returns against the Giants in the 2012 NFC Championship Game, the second of which led to the Giants' winning field goal in overtime. To his credit, Williams fought back from that low point, made the team the last two seasons and has not turned the ball over in the last 11/2 seasons.
After Tuesday's transactions, the 49ers have an open spot on their 53-man roster. They could add tight end Derek Carrier from the practice squad later this week if either Vernon Davis (concussion) or Garrett Celek (hamstring) is unable to play Sunday.