SF 49ers not-so special teams needs major overhaul in 2021

Special Teams Coordinator Richard Hightower of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
Special Teams Coordinator Richard Hightower of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images) /

One can argue special teams cost the SF 49ers a chance at an upset win over the Saints in Week 10, prompting an idea this unit needs help in 2021.

If the SF 49ers‘ special teams unit played at least to par in Week 10 against the New Orleans Saints, it’s highly likely the Niners would have at least had a shot to pull off an upset.

Two muffed punts and some notable gaffes on kickoff coverage ensured San Francisco would fall 27-13 in the road contest.

But the bigger picture surrounding this less-discussed unit isn’t a pretty one, pointing out how special teams has been something of a regular problem for head coach Kyle Shanahan and Co. over the majority of 2020. Yes, there have been calls for Shanahan to change his role from head coach/offensive coordinator to a pure head coach only. And defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, despite his successes with a depleted defense, has apparently been on the hot seat, too, in the minds of some.

No one is looking at SF 49ers special teams coordinator Richard Hightower.

Granted, Hightower gets a bit of a pass here because of the ever-changing nature of special teams units, which are always comprised of many a backup player and often find themselves shifting in personnel from one season to the next. Offense and defense go through this, too, but typically at a far less rate.

Still, the shift in special teams for San Francisco from 2019 to 2020 has been notable.

Last season, according to Football Outsiders‘ DVOA metric, the SF 49ers special teams ranked 12th best in the league. Entering their Week 10 matchup, before those gaffes against the Saints, the Niners were still 12th.

After the game, however, they’re at No. 18.

There are some traditional stats to look at here, too. Let’s take a look at some contrasts outside of the usual kicking/punting numbers (we’ll get there shortly) to gauge how this unit has worked this season compared to 2019.

SF 49ers offensive/defensive starting field positions

  • 2019 on offense: Own 32.1-yard line (fourth)
  • 2020 on offense: Own 27.4-yard line (22nd)
  • 2019 on defense: Opponents’ 28.5-yard line (16th)
  • 2020 on defense: Opponents’ 29.2-yard line (19th)

SF 49ers kick/punt return yards against

  • 2019 average punt-return yards allowed: 5.7 (tied for fifth)
  • 2020 average punt-return yards allowed: 5.8 (tied for 10th)
  • 2019 average kickoff-return yards allowed: 21.8 (14th)
  • 2020 average kickoff-return yards allowed: 23.8 (23rd)

SF 49ers kick/punt returns

  • 2019 kickoff-return average: 20.5 yards (27th)
  • 2020 kickoff-return average: 20.5 yards (tied for 19th)
  • 2019 punt-return average: 8.0 yards (tied for ninth)
  • 2020 punt-return average: 8.8 yards (tied for 14th)

In nearly every category across the board, there’s been notable regression. Some of this can be attributed to an ever-shifting array of return specialists, including wide receiver Richie James, whose muffed punt in Week 10 all but derailed any chance for an SF 49ers comeback.

Yet James has shared duties with fellow offensive players like running back Jerick McKinnon, wide receiver Trent Taylor and now-New York Giants wide receiver Dante Pettis, although none have generated notable results favorable to starting offensive field position.

And the Niners could be hurting for the lack of some of their top specialists, too, including linebacker Mark Nzeocha, who has been an ace with this group since 2018 but has been shelved on injured reserve since Week 4 with a quad injury. Running back Raheem Mostert, also on IR, has also seen his role change from a special teams gunner to a No. 1 tailback, bringing him out from this group, too.

Still, that doesn’t eliminate the need for some serious shakeups within this unit, including one of the specialists.

Special teams moves SF 49ers need to make in 2021

There’s one easy move the Niners can plan on making this offseason: cutting veteran kicker Robbie Gould.

Gould turned a page on his forgettable 2019 first-half efforts and has missed just one field goal this season. But at a maximum $5.25 million contract in 2021, one can’t help but think saving $3.75 million in cap space via a cap-casualty cut would be the right move here. San Francisco never should have inked Gould to that lucrative four-year, $19 million deal in 2020 in the first place.

Another move would be for the SF 49ers to strongly look at a more dynamic return specialist, not merely asking James, or whoever else, to assume duties because there’s no one else likable to handle the role. Perhaps that’s one reason why the Niners could entertain a reunion with wide receiver/returner Tavon Austin again in 2021.

Lastly, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to consider moving on from Hightower, too, particularly considering none of San Francisco’s special teams units have been anything close to spectacular since he was brought aboard for the role under Shanahan in 2017.

The latter move, of course, pending on how this group fares in the coming weeks to close out 2021.

Next. 5 moves 49ers should plan on making in 2021. dark

About the only certainty from this unit is punter Mitch Wishnowsky, a 2019 fourth-round draft selection, sticking around into 2021.

Aside from him, nearly everything should be up for grabs this offseason.