We've now taken a look at all of the positions on offense and defense, have talked a little about the individual players and their contributions on special teams, but now it's time to take a final look with a dedicated post to the San Francisco 49ers' special teamers. The coverage units were absolutely insane this past season, one of the best I've seen in many years, and there's a whole slew of players to thank for that.
The kicking and punting were, of course, nothing short of amazing, with several records broken. David Akers was brought in to replace Joe Nedney and broke records, but he is locked down and is not going to hit free agency. Andy Lee, Brian Jennings, Anthony Dixon, Colin Jones and Curtis Holcomb are all retained for next season.
Unfortunately, this means the very best contributors on the coverage units are all scheduled to hit free agency. Blake Costanzo, C.J. Spillman, and Tavares Gooden are set to hit free agency, and given how good they were, another team might try to take them away. Some folks forget that there are bidding wars for special teamers, too. The good news is that those players like it here. Ted Ginn Jr., the primary return man this season, is also set to hit free agency.
After the jump, we'll take a look at the various special teamers. I'm going to vote in this poll with the feeling that the 49ers don't need to struggle to bring back guys like Spillman and Costanzo.
Is there much that really needs to be said about Akers? He signed a three-year contract and earned every penny of what he made this past season. He set the NFL record for field goals in a single season and was a huge reason the 49ers offense wasn't, you know, the worst in the league. San Francisco won six games by seven or fewer points, and Akers was great from 50+ yards, going 7-for-9. Akers also played an integral role in the field position battle, setting the 49ers up with the third-best mark in the league for opponent starting field position on kickoffs.
The pairing of Lee and Akers makes for the best kicker/punter combination in the NFL, even better than Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler across the bay. Lee set a team record with a 50.9 gross average and broke the NFL record with a 44.0 net average. He consistently had height on his punts that let this great coverage team get down there to down it or force a fair catch. There's just nothing he can't do. He's a free agent after next season.
He earned his second trip to the Pro Bowl but it really should have been his 12th. In 12 years. Because I said so. He's damn-near perfect, hustles on coverage and hit a referee with a snap this season. What more can you ask for? He's signed through 2015.
Ted Ginn Jr.
Ginn took a pay cut, and then proceeded to win the 49ers their first game with kickoff and punt return touchdowns. He never quite matched that throughout the rest of the season, but was third in the NFL in kick return average (27.6) and fourth in the NFL in punt return average (12.3). The 49ers definitely need to sign him to another contract unless they can find someone else to handle the duties, but there's nobody suitable on the roster.
He's always struck me as a solid returner, but we know all too-well know that he takes far too many risks. He didn't fumble in the regular season on special teams, but his two turnovers against the Giants took that game out of the 49ers' hands on both sides of the ball. He should not be used on special teams moving forward.
I wouldn't be surprised if Costanzo came back to San Francisco for the loose promise of maybe getting paid some day in the distant future. He was very, very good on special teams, and much faster than I thought. The guy came screaming down the sideline to hit very, very hard and is one of the hardest workers on the team. In my opinion, he was the best performer on the coverage units, and teams struggled to contain him, giving him the Michael Robinson double-cover treatment that rarely worked.
Spillman was released from his previous team because he couldn't contribute on special teams. Now there's argument to him being the best special teamer on the 49ers. Like Costanzo, he's faster than I thought he'd be, and is a sure tackler. Spillman also commanded double coverage at times. I expect the 49ers to give him a good amount of money, especially because more teams might be after him.
Gooden had just one tackle on defense, but had 12 of them on special teams. He's part of the core group but he's definitely somebody that can be replaced. Either way, you can't expect everyone on special teams to be a star, so it would make sense to ask him back on the same deal. He's athletic and very strong. I'd bring him back.
He played a lot snaps on special teams and was good on coverage, but he's not a huge playmaker in that regard. His value lies on offense, where most maintain he has a lot of talent, but he'll only have one more offseason to prove it before the 49ers replace him. It wouldn't be a big loss to special teams if he wasn't around, unless his dancing pushes them over, which I admit is a legitimate possibility.
Early on, he was kind of invisible ... or rather, he couldn't make tackles or make anything happen. Jones was often the first person near the return man ... and he was the first to pass him up and miss him entirely. About halfway through the season, he really started to dial it in though, and became a force on special teams. I'm excited about him going forward, so much raw athleticism there.