49ers depth chart: Special teams are special in 2020, too

Robbie Gould #9 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Robbie Gould #9 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) /

The 49ers depth chart hopefully has some special teams consistency this year.

There were a number of reasons to be dissatisfied with the San Francisco 49ers depth chart on special teams last year.

Particularly among the specialists, where then-rookie Mitch Wishnowsky, the Niners’ fourth-round NFL Draft pick from 2019, averaged just 44.9 yards per boot, which was tied for 22nd longest among league qualifiers.

Or they could have been frustrated with veteran kicker Robbie Gould, whose career-low 74.2 field-goal percentage — 26th best out of 33 qualifiers — wasn’t exactly the kind of mark fans were expecting after San Francisco inked him to that lucrative four-year deal earlier in 2019.

As a result, and thanks to a number of other factors, the 49ers boasted the league’s 11th-best special teams unit in 2019, according to Football Outsiders, compared to eighth best the year prior.

Yet there are a number of factors to chew on here when looking at the 49ers depth chart on special teams and how that unit pans out in 2020. For starters, the specialists remain the same from what was the end of last season:

49ers Depth Chart: Consistency at Long-Snapper

Gould’s struggles in 2019 were mostly relegated to the first half of the season when the Niners were shuffling with varying long-snappers, including Colin Holba and Jon Condo, to make up for Kyle Nelson completing his 10-game suspension for a 2018 PED violation.

It’s almost impossible to statistically judge long-snappers aside from botched snaps. But when paired with Wishnowsky’s adjustment to the pro ranks, it’s not out of the realm of possibility these ever-changing batteries made life difficult for Gould early on.

Neither did missing three games with an injury.

San Francisco didn’t bring aboard any specialists during the offseason, which all but ensures the trio of Gould, Wishnowsky and Nelson remain in place to start 2020.

That’s about the only thing one can ask for from this unit.

49ers Depth Chart: Returns and Coverage Battles

Another key reason why it’s difficult to gauge the effectiveness of a special teams unit from year to year is the sheer number of personnel changes the team can have. Depth players often need to be able to contribute on special teams. And unless there’s a bona fide return specialist whose role is clearly established, this group can change a lot from one year to the next.

A year ago, the Niners allowed an average of 21.79 yards per kickoff return, which is about on league average. The year before, that number was 24.52, which suggests Wishnowsky’s kickoff duties were an improvement and/or the coverage unit was doing its job better.

San Francisco also allowed an average of 5.7 yards per punt return last year, which was seventh best. That’s a mark special teams coordinator Richard Hightower will look to continue.

But the battle to watch here will be among the 49ers’ own returners, namely players like Richie James, Dante Pettis, Trent Taylor, D.J. Reed and potentially the rookie, Brandon Aiyuk.

James and Pettis, listed as wide receivers, have rather precarious holds on the 49ers depth chart at their positions. Yet the Niners may want to save Aiyuk, one of their two first-round NFL Draft picks, solely for offensive duties.

Last season, James was the primary kickoff return specialist. Yet San Francisco averaged just over 20 yards per return attempt here, which put this group into the bottom six in this particular category.

Needless to say, James’ job will be up for grabs in training camp.

Next. 49ers training camp: One battle to watch at each position. dark

Still, the specialists within this group can benefit from the consistency it didn’t exactly enjoy a year ago, which should hopefully lead to some modest improvement in an area that doesn’t quite receive the attention it deserves.