Last month, before the 49ers got into their OTAs, we put together a pair of posts looking at the offensive position battles and defensive position battles. In doing that, we overlooked the special teams position battles. The 49ers are set at punter and kicker, but beyond that, there are some questions to consider. The long snapper battle could be surprisingly wide open, while many of the bottom end of the roster will be looking to prove they can handle special teams work in order to earn a roster spot.
Brian Jennings is currently the longest tenured 49er, and he plays a position in which he could stick around for a long time. That being said, as his salary slowly increases, it should surprise nobody that the 49ers have brought in two players to compete for long-snapping duties. The 49ers signed Kevin McDermott as an undrafted free agent out of UCLA, and brought back Kyle Nelson for his second training camp tour of duty. Coach Harbaugh had a few comments about McDermott before OTAs got started:
Through the evaluation process, what he did in college, his work leading up to the draft. We really felt that he was the best long snapping candidate in college football. And we're really pleased to have him on the squad. And he'll be in a battle of competition with the great [LS] Brian Jennings at that position. But, I think he's an excellent candidate and has the license and the opportunity to make a spot on this football team.
Jennings is scheduled to earn $940,000 in 2013, while Nelson would earn $480,000 and McDermott would earn $405,000. As Maiocco pointed out in his look at the long-snapper position yesterday, the 49ers are close enough to the salary cap limit that even a few hundred thousand dollars can be a difference-maker. Jennings is scheduled to make $940,000 this year and $1,035,000 next year. McDermott is scheduled to earn $405,000 this year, 495,000 in 2014 and $585,000 in 2015.
While Jennings is the best at what he does, you cannot afford to keep everybody. If McDermott or Nelson can show something in training camp and the preseason, we could see Jennings get the axe. It might not be fair, but with a salary cap in place, fair doesn't matter.
I believe some of the other wide receivers are getting some work at punt returner, but it seems like these are the four guys to track as we head to training camp. Matt Barrows believes that if at 100%, Kyle Williams is the front-runner for the role. James has the edge at kick returner, but B.J. Daniels could prove to be the wild card here. He does not have the same kind of special teams experience, but the quarterback has the athleticism. If he can handle the winds of Candlestick Park, and shows enough as a quarterback and running back, maybe he takes the job. It would be a bit of an upset, but who knows.
For now, with Kyle Williams, we are left to wait and see what training camp brings. He is recovering from his ACL tear, and all indications are that he will be good to go when the 49ers return to Santa Clara next month. If he is back at 100%, the punt return job does in fact seem like his to lose. It will be interesting though to see how many opportunities LaMichael James gets in training camp. He struggled mightily last preseason attempting to return punts in the Candlestick Park winds. Maybe a year of practice has brought him more confidence?
I would be pretty surprised if anybody but James was handling this work come September. I think we'll see the rest get plenty of work in the preseason, but James was very solid in the role last season after he took over from Ted Ginn. I would consider it a sizable upset to see somebody else claim the role.
General special teams roles
Participants: It's a long and glorious list
In reality, upwards of two-thirds of this roster would seem to be looking to impress on special teams. Anthony Dixon, C.J. Spillman, Tramaine Brock, Darcel McBath, Demarcus Dobbs and Will Tukuafu are among the leaders of the Tony Montana squad. This year, the squad will potentially see boosts from the likes of Nick Moody, Dan Skuta, Craig Dahl and plenty others.
In reality, I don't really know how would be best for assessing this "position battle". The team's offseason moves dictate they recognized the many weaknesses in the coverage and return units last year. The 2011 team benefited greatly from spectacular special teams. In 2012, the special teams were one of the biggest weaknesses, and the team paid the price. The team is looking to avoid a similar mistake, and has brought in talent to handle that. It will be interesting to see how many guys that end up being mostly special teamers get the edge over depth at certain positions.