Finding a returner should be a priority for the Niners this season
For years, Rick Gosselin has broken down and ranked each special teams unit in the NFL. Gosselin separates the kicking game into 22 separate categories and assigns points according to their standing. You get one point for being the best and 32 for being the worst.
As for the 22 categories, the Niners finished in the top-five in only one category, and it wasn’t the one you’d want to be ranked highly in. . San Francisco finished with the most penalties on any special teams unit, according to Gosselin.
The 49ers finished last in giveaways on special teams with four. Finding a punt return should be near the top of the list this season if the team won’t allow Brandon Aiyuk to be their No. 1 punt returner.
San Francisco also finished dead last in opponent punting, which I imagine is related to field position. It felt like once a game—and yes, that’s exaggerating—that we’d see Trent Taylor let a ball bounce, and it would affect the offense’s field position by 5-10 yards. Richie James muffing a few punts certainly didn’t help, either.
So we’re not relying on one source of information; Football Outsiders tracks special teams’ play. San Francisco finished 23rd in special teams DVOA and 27th in weighted DVOA—which puts less emphasis on games that were played earlier in the season. The Niners were ranked 12th in DVOA in special teams during their Super Bowl run in 2019.
Breaking it down even further, the 49ers ranked 17th in field goals/extra points—which should raise some eyebrows considering they just gave Robbie Gould a new contract extension. The team was 21st in kickoffs, 31st in kick returns, 16th in punts, 27th in punt returns, and 26th in hidden points.
What the 49ers need is consistency. It’s fair to point out that injuries forced their core special teams players onto the field, forcing free agents the team signed off the street and practice squad players to cover kicks and make tackles. Shoot, starters like Kyle Juszczyk were on the punt team, while Kendrick Bourne had to play on the punt return team. The 49ers didn’t have any other options at times this season.
The 49ers finished 2020 with the 23rd best average starting field position in the NFL. The offense was behind the 8-ball before they even took the field. It’s no coincidence that San Francisco also finished 23rd in points per drive. Yes, backups played a big part in that, but having to drive 80 yards every time you have the ball makes it difficult for any offense—especially when you have a backup QB and cannot generate big plays.
Find a punt and kick return this offseason. It has to be a priority for the 49ers.