3 burning questions for 49ers special teams in 2020
The 49ers special teams unit was unspectacular in 2019, and questions remain about its future performance.
Special teams, in many ways, is a lot like offensive lines. When it’s done solidly, no one seems to care much about it. When it starts to crash and burn, well then all eyes are on those players.
But for some of the heavyweights of the NFL in recent years, especially the New England Patriots, special teams has played a monumental role in their focus and roster construction. For the San Francisco 49ers, their relationship with the third component of the game has been love-hate.
For the Richie James kick-return touchdown versus the Seattle Seahawks late in 2018, one can remember former Baltimore Ravens kick returner Jacoby Jones doing the same in the 2012 Super Bowl and worse, the Kyle Williams fumble in the 2011 NFC Championship game. Following the teardown of the Jim Harbaugh-era roster under head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, special teams had become an important area to focus on.
Niner Noise’s Peter Panacy broke down the special teams unit heading into last season, where he highlighted the kicking game, due to Robbie Gould’s accuracy, and the kickoff-return unit, led by James as two strengths. The two weaknesses he found were with punting, both with returns and with punt defense.
Fast-forward a year, in his recap of the 2019 special teams performance, Peter Panacy wrote “there were a number of reasons to be dissatisfied with the San Francisco 49ers depth chart on special teams last year.” He cited how the kicking game declined rapidly due to Gould’s poor accuracy and how returns as a whole were lackluster. However, there was a bright side, with the punt coverage improving to seventh best in the league, although punter Mitch Wishnowsky himself was not extraordinary.
All that context indicates 49ers special teams are in a precarious place right now, with better production a critical component of a jump in overall performance for the team. But that doesn’t take into account transactions, uncontrollable incidents, and perhaps most importantly, player growth over the course of the year and the offseason.
The 49ers have some major questions they need to address to see how to make special teams a stalwart on gameday.