SAN DIEGO - DECEMBER 05: Rock Cartwright #25 of the Oakland Raiders celebrates after his team recovered a fumble in the first quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on December 5 2010 in San Diego California. The Raiders defeated the Chargers 28-13. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
One thing that's always been incredibly important to me, or rather, one thing that's been a constant point of stress to me in regards to the San Francisco 49ers is the special teams coverage unit. As many know, my favorite 49er of all time is Jeff Ulbrich - obviously not a popular opinion. When Mike Singletary parted ways with Michael Robinson in the same offseason that we lost Ulbrich (lost him halfway through the previous season, as it happens) and also Donald Strickland, I stressed over our coverage units.
Which of course, were abysmal that year. Many were saying that Robinson was dead space on the roster, despite the fact that he commanded double teams and was definitely a leader in that regard (he has since went on to be very useful to the Seattle Seahawks), and were happy he was gone. Until the season actually got underway, of course.
At any rate, I can't stress enough how important it is to have dedicated special teamers. San Francisco had the best coverage units in the NFL last season, thanks to Blake Costanzo, C.J. Spillman, and an unbeatable attitude. I really do feel like the attitude was the catalyst to a successful group, and I don't know if it was the players for sure who instilled it, or if it was Brad Seely, but it was certainly fun to watch.
Costanzo quickly became the leader and one of the more productive guys on special teams. I'd argue that Spillman out-played him there, but Costanzo was unquestionably the leader of the group, and that counts for something. There was nothing quite like seeing the coverage units get down and start dancing before (and sometimes during) the kickoff. One can assume that was Anthony Dixon that urged them to break it down, but that will remain an uncertainty for now.
When free agency started and Costanzo wasn't immediately signed, I wasn't worried. Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area wrote that Costanzo would probably pay the 49ers to return in 2012 and that he was a lock to re-sign. As it turns out, he wasn't in the 49ers plans and they let him walk. He signed on with the Chicago Bears for two years, which leads me to believe San Francisco wanted one-year deals for their special team guys.
Flashbacks to Robinson were immediate. But then the 49ers signed a player who I believe is one of only a couple guys who would have been a suitable replacement for Costanzo: 10-year special teams veteran Rock Cartwright. He's listed as a running back, and thus some folks have already given him some scrutiny given the stable of backs we already have, but Cartwright is very much a special teams player.
He's a leader, and Oakland Raiders fans were absolutely crushed to see him sign elsewhere. That's not an exaggeration in the slightest. It's like all of their fandom for Cartwright was individually like my personal fandom for Dominique Zeigler, just multiplied by 10. He's "the guy", and the 49ers brought him in for that. But it occurs to me that some folks don't necessarily value special teams players as much as I do.
Roster spots will be at a premium for this team heading into next season. I'm wondering if you feel that Cartwright deserves a spot or, since the 49ers have other running backs, you'd rather go with someone else. Keep in mind that Cartwright has always been a decent runner, and might have more value than both Anthony Dixon and Brandon Jacobs at this point in an emergency backup role.
I'm wondering mostly because some have expressed that Cartwright should be cut so the 49ers can make room for one of those two, when the former isn't fantastic on special teams (and isn't a great runner) and the latter has no special teams value at all and runs soft. Plus, Cartwright can be a backup fullback, so there's that. Let the discussion begin.