Special teams are very underrated, so in 2023 the San Francisco 49ers must boast the best unit.
Growing up playing soccer, my favourite CFL player was a kicker. Naturally, it makes sense. The only similarity between a kicker and soccer is they involve a lot of kicking and not a lot of hitting. Perfect! But as I got older and started understanding the importance of a kicker, it became more clear how crucial a solid special teams group needs to be.
Once former San Francisco 49ers kicker Robbie Gould announced he wouldn’t be back with the team, it left a pretty big hole in the battery. Gould currently holds a perfect 20-of-20 on field-goal attempts in the postseason, which is why seeing him depart a playoff team like the Niners is tough to swallow.
General manager John Lynch, head coach Kyle Shanahan and San Francisco’s scouting department recognized the need for a kicker and took Michigan’s Jake Moody with their third-round selection.
Niner Noise’s Jeremy Wohlfart dove into why Moody is a solid pick and why the Niners took him when they did, which you can read here.
However, let’s look at San Francisco’s special teams as a unit. For the most part, it should go unnoticed. The punter, kicker and any return guys are the ones you should hear about.
If you do hear about them it’s either a bad snap from the long-snapper, a return for a touchdown or some costly penalty. So, the goal is to not be an un-highlight on ESPN.
The special teams aspect really changes the momentum of games. If any aspect of it is off, things could go south fast.
Just think back to the Super Bowl in February, when the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles squared off. With just over 10 minutes left in the game and KC up by one, Kadarius Toney received a punt from the Eagles. He took it back nearly 70 yards and almost to the house. Sure, other parts of the game took place, but if any Chiefs player misses a block, or if any Eagles player steps up and makes a tackle earlier, it could be a different outcome.
49ers Ray-Ray McCloud poised to be a game-changer again
Despite the change in kicker, the 49ers should still boast the best special teams unit in the NFL next season. They have a solid long-snapper in Taybor Pepper, a reliable punter with Mitch Wishnowsky, and a vastly improved return game with wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud.
McCloud substantially changed the way the Niners return punts. He has a “receive the kick and go” mentality, which normally changes the field position. Having a returner whose first instinct is to run and not fair-catch puts the defence on edge and usually creates a lot of opportunities.
Everyone in the football world knows, unless you’re a star quarterback or wide receiver, you get your start on special teams. Seventh-round selection, 253rd overall, wide receiver Ronnie Bell will get a chance to earn his stripes on the kick and punt cover teams.
49ers boasted one of the best punters in Mitch Wishnowsky
Wishnowsky recorded 61 punts in 2022, with 52 percent of them ending up within the opponent’s 20-yard line.
Just like the return game for San Francisco, the punting game is just as important. Any time you can force the opponent to start in its own red zone is a huge advantage to the defence.
49ers long-snapper Taybor Pepper is a fan favourite
Pepper is a fan favourite on and off the field, especially on social media. If he didn’t have a huge Twitter following, you might never know who the 49ers long-snapper is.
And, honestly, it’s a good thing.
Long-snappers almost never make the news unless they send a snap over the punter’s head or roll a ball on the turf which the holder can’t snag in time. Having Pepper be a consistently dominant long-snapper has helped San Francisco.
Hopefully, we only see good highlights and 60-yard game-winning field goals from Moody and don’t end up on misplays of the year from the 49ers.