49ers’ special teams productivity in 2019 a key X-factor

Robbie Gould #9 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Robbie Gould #9 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images) /

After a slight regression in 2019, the San Francisco 49ers’ special teams unit will look to provide a boost to the team’s efforts, yet there are some pressing questions.

In 2017, the San Francisco 49ers ended up boasting one of the strongest special teams units in the entire league.

Case in point, the Niners actually were tied for the best punt returns-allowed average that year with 4.2. Coverage units exceeded expectations that season despite the team’s 6-10 record, only to see that number increase to 7.8 last season — 13th best in the NFL.

Overall, Pro Football Focus ranked San Francisco’s special teams 27th in the league, while Football Outsiders‘ DVOA metric ranked it 14th.

Special teams can be difficult to gauge, and doing so goes clearly beyond the specialists. In most cases, there’s a large rotation of depth players and reserves, who are asked to contribute for this unit. And while there are some notable gunners, returners and coverage specialists — running back Raheem Mostert is one such example — it’s rare to boast a unit without a lot of turnover.

At least the Niners retain special teams coordinator Richard Hightower, so there’s some continuity there.

As far as those specialists go, the 49ers will be banking on franchise-tagged kicker Robbie Gould, who led the NFL last season with a 97.1 field-goal percentage a year ago. Gould has yet to sign his tender, however, and that could lead to a holdout of sorts, as the veteran has asked for a trade. San Francisco won’t honor that request, though, and it would seem as if he’ll return in time for the regular season.

Beyond that? Well, it’s anyone’s guess.

A lockdown kicker is important, of course. Look no further than the Niners’ Week 15 overtime win over the Seattle Seahawks as a perfect example. But there’s so much more to just how effective special teams can be, which is of extreme importance for head coach Kyle Shanahan and Co.

Punters, Returners and Field Position, Oh My!

Letting punter Bradley Pinion walk in free agency made sense, yet grabbing Utah’s Mitch Wishnowsky in Round 4 of the 2019 NFL Draft sure raised some eyebrows.

San Francisco insisted Wishnowsky wouldn’t have been available the following round. And if the Australian-born punter winds up being a field-turning weapon for the long run, whether or not the Niners reached will wind up being an afterthought sooner than later.

There are a lot of factors going into this particular stat, but opposing offenses against the 49ers averaged starts on their own 30.9-yard line, which put San Francisco’s defense at third worst in this category. Wishnowsky’s ability to drop that number down, even if it’s just three or four yards on average, would be significant and takes a lot of pressure off defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s unit.

On the flip side, it’s impossible to forget kick returner Richie James‘ 97-yard return for a touchdown in that Week 15 game against the Seahawks.

San Francisco 49ers top 10 plays 2018 NFL season
Richie James #13 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

Overall, the Niners averaged 26.2 yards per kick return last season, which averaged fourth best in the league. On punt returns, though, San Francisco posted an average of just 5.8 yards — fourth worst overall.

It shouldn’t be too hard to find out where the 49ers will want some field-swapping improvement in 2019.

The return specialists and coverage units are, perhaps, going to be the last units determined once the 53-man roster is announced, as they’re largely contingent on how the depth chart pans out on either the offensive or defensive sides of the ball.

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Nevertheless, a good chunk of San Francisco’s success or failure in 2019 will be contingent on what happens with this particular unit.