Nobody pays attention to special teams until there's a problem. For most fans, when special teams come in, they decide it is the most opportune time to grab a beer. Yet, according to Advanced NFL Stats, one in five plays involve the special teams. Statistically, 20% of the plays in the game (on average) hinge on the special teams.
Last year, the San Francisco 49ers showed weakness on special teams. There are a few players within the unit who are experienced special teamers (e.g., Larry Grant and Anthony Dixon to name a few). But, look at the 53-man roster. Aside from the kicker, the punter, and the long snapper, the rest consist of players whose primary jobs are either on offense or defense. Simply, with the advent of the salary cap, no NFL team has the luxury of dressing an entire unit solely devoted to special teams. Players are expected to be well-rounded, capable on special teams and in their respective positions.
Let's not kid ourselves. Like other teams in the NFL, our special teams coach, Brad Seely, has been handed a bunch of rookies and young players who didn't play special teams in college. The majority of guys are asked to complement the handful of players with special teams experience. And, in the beginning of the season, we've all seen those horrendous plays and subsequently yelled, "What the hell was that?" Special teams receive on-the-job training right before our eyes.
If you watch college football, you probably know C.J. Spillman was a hard-hitting safety at Marshall. With the 49ers, Spillman is listed as a safety, but has made his name on special teams. One of Spillman's standout games last season was against the Green Bay Packers. He had two huge tackles. Spillman stated, after the Green Bay game, "Everybody can't be a starter in the NFL and with that being said, you just got to wait your turn...." I have always liked Spillman on special teams, because he makes great tackles and can hit. But, what turn is he waiting for?
Knowing the departure of Dashon Goldson was imminent, most of us panicked. After the panic phase, we speculated we would pick up a safety via free agency. When Dahl was signed, we scratched our heads. I still wonder why Michael Huff wasn't targeted in lieu of Dahl. But, we've already beaten that dead horse.
Further, it was reported the 49ers never tendered an offer to Goldson, not even a low ball offer. Yes, he was completely out of the 49ers' price range, but budgets are determined by the supply and demand of the respective position. If necessary, teams step up with money. Did the 49ers intend to fill the spot in-house all along? Did they have someone else in mind already?
A few months ago, there was some talk about Chris Culliver stepping in at safety. But, I was never fully convinced they would take him off the corner. He put up some good numbers. Don't believe me? Look at this link.
And, you cannot tell me the 49ers intended to seek out Craig Dahl as the eventual replacement. There's just no way that is plausible. Most fans seemed to agree the signing was intended to create depth, and many saw the value of Dahl as an NFL West information supply-line and looked to his mentoring capabilities.
Will Dahl try out? Absolutely. Is it possible he will see time on the field? Sure. But, have the 49ers put all their stock in Dahl? It's possible with a better system, Dahl will see more success at safety with the 49ers' secondary than with the Rams. But, it still feels like a bit of a leap.
So, obviously, we looked to the draft. It seemed the only reasonable alternative to fill the Goldson-sized hole and rebuild our secondary. Still, I remained puzzled.
NFL teams themselves do not rely on the draft 100%. Unless you have that first pick, it can be a crapshoot. Even if the 49ers intended to pick Eric Reid all along, teams never really know how the draft will play out. Teams can plan, but to acquire immediate replacement via the draft is always risky. Notwithstanding the bust factor. It seemed unlikely to me.
I thought then and I think now, the 49ers intended to fill the safety spot in house. That is, C.J. Spillman will try out for safety, and the secondary coaches believe he has a realistic shot at the position. I am totally speculating. But, it makes the most sense to me.
He was Goldson's backup last year. His skill set is at safety. He has verbalized his intention to play more defense these last two years. And, he noted most everyone in the NFL (including himself) must "wait their turn." He has NFL experience. Spillman can hit hard and he can create turnovers. I would love to see him get an opportunity.
So, what about Eric Reid? Yes, the 49ers were successful in obtaining a safety and it's likely they targeted him from the beginning. I know many are completely sold on him. I am hoping for the best. At the same time, I am not sure he is just going to walk in and start. Is he really a lock?
In the 2012 draft, Mark Barron was clearly the best safety. He was picked up in the first round and drafted No. 7 overall, by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He had a good season and is a hard hitter. He throws his body like a missile. Still, his rookie year, he allowed 24 first downs and touchdowns. It was not bad for a rookie, but the point is: it takes time to learn the safety position in the NFL. Another example is Harrison Smith. He is a force. It is hard to believe he was taken 29 overall last year. Every safety taken in the first round over the last three years started week one, but is Eric Reid the same caliber? I don't know.
So, with all this chatter about special teamers coming to the 49ers, I just had to go on record with my speculations. Why get more guys on special teams? It is absolutely true our special teams need improvement, but picking up so many could suggest they're looking to replace someone. Could it be they're looking to replace C.J. Spillman? You tell me.