The 49ers were very good in all areas of special-teams coverage last season. But their returns were awful.
Coach Mike Singletary said he places a lot of importance on special teams. And, he added, “some of the things we’ll do this offseason will reflect that.”
The list pretty much begins and ends with finding multiple players who can handle punt and kickoff returns. The 49ers will keep their eyes open in free agency, to be sure. If they want to land a dynamic return man via the draft, they might have to invest a first- or second-round pick.
Running backs C.J. Spiller, Jahvid Best and Dexter McCluster, and cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Javier Arenas (and, of course, Kyle Wilson) are among the draft-eligible players who could provide return ability to go along with roles on offense or defense.
The 49ers ranked 26th in the NFL with an average start of the 24.8-yard line after kickoff returns. They were last in the NFL – along with two costly turnovers – on punt returns with a 4.4-yard average.
There has already been one signficant change on special teams, as Singletary mysteriously parted ways with respected coordinator Al Everest. Singletary hired Kurt Schottenheimer, who has not coached special teams in more than a decade. (The Steelers, by the way, hired Everest as their special-teams coordinator.)
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P Andy Lee: He had another fantastic season, ranking second in the NFL with a 47.6 average, along with a 41.0 net average (third in the league). He seems to be getting better and better. The 49ers matched the Steelers’ six-year offer sheet in 2007 to retain him, and they are getting him at a bargain price. He is signed through the 2012 season.
K Joe Nedney: He has been very reliable since his arrival in 2005. Last season, he made 17 of 21 field-goal attempts before missing the final two games with a hamstring injury. He turns 37 next month, and he won’t be able to kick forever. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about the future and bringing in legitimate competition for him. Still, the 49ers would subject
themselves to a lot of anxiety if they were to even consider giving his job to a young, unproven kicker. Nedney is clearly the 49ers’ best option. He just has to remain healthy. He is signed through 2011.
K Ricky Schmitt: He was awarded a great opportunity late in the season when Nedney was injured. Schmitt made two of three field-goal attempts (one was blocked) against the Lions, but then he sustained an injury in practice and was not available for the finale. He’s an exclusive-rights free agent, and it’s possible the 49ers could bring him back to camp. The 49ers like to bring in a camp kicker who can perform both kicking and punting chores to save a roster spot.
K Shane Andrus: He was signed for the season finale to replace Schmitt, who replaced Nedney. He made all four extra points. He is an exclusive rights free agent and it’s doubtful he will be retained.
Arnaz Battle: He has always been a good special-teams performer as a coverage man. And he was a good return man . . . in 2004. That’s when he returned 31 punts and averaged a strong 8.6 yards, including a touchdown. But when
Josh Morgan: His 28.2-yard average on kickoffs would’ve ranked him third in the NFL if he’d had enough returns to qualify. (He had 13 returns.) But the 49ers do not want to have a starting receiver handling kickoffs. He’ll be only an emergency option in 2010. Signed through 2011.
Michael Robinson: He was a second alternate special-teams performer for the NFC Pro Bowl team. He is a valuable member of the coverage units, as the 49ers ranked third in the NFL in net punting average and fifth in kickoff coverage as the opposition managed an average starting point at only the 24.6-yard line. He is signed through 2012.
Scot McKillop: As a rookie, he led the 49ers in special-teams points. Everest’s system rewarded players for tackles, making blocks on returns and coming up with big plays. McKillop had 31 tackles and 75 blocks, as well as a fumble recovery in the end zone in an early-season game against the Rams. He’s signed through 2012.
Brandon Jones: He averaged 2.9 yards on nine returns. He often did not show the best judgment as he only signaled for one fair catch. He’ll head into next season competing for more of a role on offense as a build-up-speed deep threat. He caught just one pass for 18 yards on the season. Signed through 2013.
Tarell Brown: He started four games at cornerback. After he was demoted, he continued to have a big role on special teams. He was credited with 20 special-teams tackles (12 solo) and 61 blocks. Signed through 2013.
Marcus Hudson: He earned his spot on the roster through his role on special teams. His 24 tackles (16 solo) ranked second on the team behind McKillop. The 49ers have a decision to make with the restricted free agent. If the 49ers tender him a one-year contract at $1.176 million. If another team signs him to an offer sheet and the 49ers decline to match, they would receive a sixth-round pick as compensation. If the 49ers do not tender him by March 4, he would become an unrestricted free agent.
Delanie Walker: As the No. 2 tight end, he must have significant special-teams value, too.
Matt Wilhelm: The veteran backup linebacker took over many of Jeff Ulbrich’s responsibilities when Ulbrich was placed on injured reserve. Wilhelm had 10 solo tackles in 11 games. They could bring him back as a nice insurance policy and role player. Scheduled to be unrestricted free agent.
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