Why most 49ers free agents will barely play… and still be worth it

George Odum #30 of the Indianapolis Colts (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
George Odum #30 of the Indianapolis Colts (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) /

The 49ers have shopped in the lower tier of free agents beyond CB Charvarious Ward, but Niner Noise explains why these depth signings will pay off.

The San Francisco 49ers have been somewhat active in the first cycle of NFL free agency, but while many have wished for them to utilize quarterback Trey Lance‘s rookie contract and sign free agents at the top of the market, they seemed to exclusively focus on the middle range of the free-agent pool.

More importantly, the bulk of these free agents are all backups at their respective positions. Linebacker Oren Burks will not be starting over Fred Warner or Dre Greenlaw, Ray-Ray McCloud won’t be the starting slot receiver, even though there are some offensive possibilities, and defensive back George Odum will likely be a backup to whatever strong safety the Niners choose.

But the 49ers went out of their way to sign these players for one reason: special teams.

49ers special teams woes

Because of the impact special teams had on San Francisco’s NFC divisional-round victory over the Green Bay Packers, one can be forgiven for considering the all-important third phase of the game not a huge issue in 2021.

But that would be the absolute furthest from the truth.

The 49ers ranked 26th in special teams DVOA, according to Football Outsiders, a year after ranking 23rd in the same category. The weighted DVOA, which emphasizes later games, put the Niners at 29th. Removing adjustments for weather and altitude put San Francisco at 29th.

Where did it go wrong?

The 49ers were around break-even with field goals in points added and ranked fifth in the NFL in punting. But they were extremely below average on kickoffs and returns of any kind. And to put a point on the great playoffs performance, the team with the highest special teams DVOA in the playoffs was the Dallas Cowboys, who only played the Niners, and the team with the lowest DVOA was the Green Bay Packers, who also only played the 49ers.

The fact of the matter is that the third phase of the game was a net negative: the opponent average starting field position for San Francisco around Week 13 was the 29.1 yard-line, a position that did not improve.

What 49ers free-agent signings provide

Burks and Odum will provide help on limiting returns, which was a crucial flaw for the 49ers on kickoffs and punts as well. Mitigating returns was the only way punter Mitch Wishnowsky’s accuracy over power approach will pay dividends.

McCloud, though, will have an outsized impact on the Niners’ season due to how dreadful their special teams were before. For whatever reason, San Francisco will not put wide receivers Brandon Aiyuk or Deebo Samuel to return kicks or punts unless the season depends on it. Having someone who is capable of making sensible decisions in the return game and maximizing yardage when possible could be a huge deal for an offense that is already capable of efficiency and effectiveness.

The price tags may be a little high, but the 49ers lost games last year solely on the back of their special teams (the two games against the Seattle Seahawks come to mind explicitly).

It might not be the most flashy, but when game time comes, it’ll make a difference.

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