Image Credit: Stan Szeto/USA TODAY Sports
With the 2019 NFL draft just over a week away, the position group most in flux for the San Francisco 49ers, surprisingly, is the special teams. As it stands right now, long snappers Kyle Nelson and Colin Holba join kicker Jonathan Brown as the only special-teams members under contract. The 49ers allowed former punter Bradley Pinion to walk in free agency and slapped the franchise tag on placekicker Robbie Gould. For a group where consistency is paramount, there certainly are a plethora of question marks.
For starters, as many players made their way back to Santa Clara for voluntary offseason workouts, Gould has yet to sign his $4.97M tender. Gould has openly professed his love for the Chicago area and how he would gladly return if given the opportunity. Last week it seemed like that might be the case when the front office flirted with bringing in longtime New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski but that was not to be. Less than 24 hours after the rumors surfaced, Gostkowski had signed a contract to remain in Boston. This leaves John Lynch and Co. in a stalemate with the league’s most accurate kicker over the last two seasons.
The 49ers only insurance policy at kicker, Jonathan Brown, wasn’t even recruited as a football player coming out of high school. His long, winding journey to the NFL began as a soccer player at the University of Kentucky before transferring to the University of Louisville and only appearing in a handful as games as the team’s kickoff specialist. Signed as an undrafted rookie in 2016 by Cincinnati, Brown bounced from the waiver wire to their practice squad prior to signing with the 49ers this offseason. While he has never appeared in a regular season game, he was able connect on all five of his field goal attempts in the 2018 preseason.
This brings us to the gaping hole at punter. Without a single one on the roster and only six picks to work with in the upcoming draft, it is hard to envision John Lynch using one on a punter. Pinion was erratic for his entire career after being drafted in the fifth round by Trent Baalke and seemed a longshot to be brought back. This means that the front office would seem comfortable rolling with an undrafted free agent or one of the sparse veterans still available on the market.
In order for punters and kickers to do their job effectively, the long snappers have to be the most dependable players on the field. Last season, Kyle Nelson proved to be anything but when he was on the receiving end of a 10-game suspension for violating the league’s performance enhancing drugs policy. Nelson, signed to a four-year extension this offseason, still has six games remaining on his suspension and does not figure to be a lock to return once he has served his time. Colin Holba was quickly brought in to fill his shoes and even if the fans did not know his name, he did a fantastic job. He will enter the season as the presumed starter and it will be hard to strip him of those duties if he remains anonymous.
The return units were not necessarily something to write home about last season, either. If Richie James Jr.’s touchdown return against the Seahawks is ignored, the 49ers’ return game was pedestrian at best. Wide receiver Trent Taylor lead all punt returners with a 7.8 yard per return average while James recorded the longest punt return at 23 yards. WR Dante Pettis, one of the most prolific punt returners in NCAA history, was often injured and unable to handle those duties. In order for the 49ers to be able to flip field position, they will need more from this group in 2019.
With a revamped defense and an offense returning to full strength following major injuries, the special teams need to continue to be solid for head coach Kyle Shanahan. The 49ers have seen first-hand how blunders from special teams units can completely derail a season in the playoffs. Special teams coordinator Richard Hightower needs to light a fire under this group entering his second season with the 49ers. Many wins and losses can be traced directly back to the successes and failures of special teams play.
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