The 49ers’ special teams were bad in 2021, which helps explain why Oren Burks was a target in NFL free agency this offseason. Could he be more than that, though?
Outside of cornerback Charvarius Ward, the overwhelming majority of San Francisco 49ers pickups in NFL free agency this offseason were meant to address one key weakness stemming from last year.
You might recall, but Football Outsiders ranked the Niners’ third phase 26th in the league last season, and one might argue the only standout moment this group had was in the divisional round of the playoffs when only the Green Bay Packers’ special teams unit was worse.
One of those Green Bay players who watched as San Francisco advanced to the NFC Championship game was linebacker Oren Burks, the Packers’ third-round NFL Draft pick from 2018 out of Vanderbilt, who subsequently signed a two-year deal with the 49ers in NFL free agency worth up to $5 million.
While Green Bay’s special teams were bad in 2021, Burks was a standout. And it’s likely the Niners look to him to help improve their own unit here, too.
But will he end up being more than that this upcoming season?
Why Oren Burks makes a positive impact with 49ers in 2022
Burks rarely made the jump from a special teams contributor to a full-time defensive starter during his four-year tenure in Green Bay, amassing just seven starts over his time there.
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
In 2020, he played only 96 defensive snaps (nine percent), yet that number jumped up a bit last season, Burks appearing on 205 defensive snaps (19 percent).
However, with over 330 special teams snaps in each of the last two seasons, that third phase of the game is where he made his name known.
Pro Football Focus awarded Burks with a 71.4 special teams grade in 2021, which was only a shade lower than his career-best 72.7 mark set back during his rookie season.
If the 49ers wind up with that kind of level from Burks on special teams, they’ll undoubtedly be happy about it.
Why Oren Burks winds up a liability for 49ers
It can be tough to gauge and quantify special teams contributions, particularly for gunners and coverage units whose responsibilities aren’t necessarily easy to identify.
One particular concern might be in the missed-tackle department, where Burks had four a year ago and another four back in 2020, per PFF, and the latter season corresponding to his lowest special teams grade of 60.8.
However, Burks might be one of those players who’s called upon to deliver some defensive depth in case the Niners are tested with injuries this upcoming season.
Burks has never been much of a coverage linebacker, and the missed tackles could end up being something of a problem in run defense, too.
So, unless Burks remains a net positive on special teams, one can wonder if he’ll ever offer much more impact anywhere else.
Oren Burks’ projected role with Niners in 2022
Burks’ two-year contract carries over $2.4 million in guaranteed money, so he’s not in danger of being a post-preseason cut by the time Week 1 rolls around. He’ll be on the roster, assuming he stays healthy, meaning the only question is what kind of role he’ll assume and whether or not it’ll go beyond special teams.
San Francisco’s starting linebacker trio of Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair appears fully set, while Burks can safely be counted upon the crop of reservists, who include Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, Jeremiah Gemmel, Marcelino McCrary-Ball, Segun Olubi and Curtis Robinson.
And one could argue that only Flannigan-Fowles is the likeliest out of that remaining crop to make the 53-man roster.
Assuming the 49ers keep five linebackers on their regular-season roster, Burks could easily work his way into the rotation as a primary backup, someone who could specialize in run-stopping packages with the possibility of being asked to fill in for a starter in case of injury.
That might be the maximum expectation for him, although one could see why the Niners weren’t overly concerned with that.
No, they wanted Burks for his special teams prowess. And if he delivers there this season, he’ll be worth the investment.