NFL free agency is just about ready to get going, which means we'll see an assortment of big and small names changing teams. We have spent a lot of time talking about Donte Whitner, Tarell Brown and Phil Dawson, but there are also some smaller names that will be worth watching. Perrish Cox, Anthony Dixon and Kassim Osgood are three notable special teams players that will hit the open market.
The 49ers philosophy in recent years has been to show some patience early in the free agency process, and then start picking up guys after the big deals have been figured out. The 49ers add players to their defense and offense, but they also find lesser known players to fill roles on special teams. Last season, guys like Craig Dahl and Dan Skuta were added to the coverage and return units. The coverage units were among the league's best, thanks in part to these lesser known additions.
I think the 49ers will eventually bring Kassim Osgood back into the fold, but Anthony Dixon likely walks. Perrish Cox is a little more difficult to figure out. He was a restricted free agent, but the 49ers have not tendered him, so he becomes unrestricted. I don't expect him to be a big free agency target, but we'll see how long the 49ers wait if they decide to try and bring him back.
The 49ers will sign some players in the coming weeks that have us scratching our heads as to their use. Safety Craig Dahl was one such player. When the 49ers signed him away from the St. Louis Rams, Rams fans were pleased. And during his limited time in the 49ers starting defense (in place of twice injured Eric Reid), Dahl was not particularly helpful. Fortunately, he showed his value on special teams. I suspect he'll be in a similar situation this season.
I spoke with our NFL blogs, and a little over half passed along some thoughts on their free agents that would primarily serve as specialists. The 49ers may end up signing none of these guys, but this at least gets them on your radar.
Alfonso Smith - RB (RFA): Smith started the year as the team's third down back for his pass blocking, where he was excellent, but he was a staple on the return team and in kick coverage. He can also return kicks, as he has great straight-line speed.
Bryan McCann -- CB: McCann was a late season addition. He was fantastic as a gunner. He also has experience (not in Arizona) returning kicks and punts.
Javier Arenas -- CB: He was the Cards' kick returner, as was mostly not very good. He has returned punts successfully in KC and was part of the punt coverage team in AZ.
The Falcons have a short list, and there's only one name really worth noting: Dominique Franks is a solid tackler and gunner on special teams. He has been a punt returner in the past, but he's probably too timid about actually returning the ball to fill that role on any other team.
Jeromy Miles: gunner and backup safety
Jacoby Jones: kickoff and punt returner
KR/PR Ted Ginn - Though he didn't get to the end zone he vastly improved our field position, was reliable and made some key returns that helped win a couple games. I hope we bring him back.
LB Blake Costanzo - He's been with five teams since being an UDFA in 2006, but is a solid special teams player. In fact, he got an All-Pro nod as a special teamer back in 2009. Good open field tackler on punt and kickoff coverage.
KR/PR Devin Hester - Hester had that *one extra* gear for a few years that really put him over the top in speed. It does seem like he's lost just a tiny bit of that over the last 2 seasons, but he's still one of the top returners in the league. Watching him over the years, it seems like his field-vision comes and goes, or maybe just his confidence and decision-making, but he definitely has been inconsistent at times. As a pure returner, he can still flip field position at the blink of an eye, and while the TD's might not be as plentiful as years past, he can still be a difference-maker.
CB Sherrick McManis - He filled in as CB a couple of times when things got thin for the Bears, but is generally strictly a special teams guy. He won ST Player of the Week one time in 2012, and is one of those guys that always seems to be around the football during punts and kickoffs.
S Craig Steltz - Steltz has been a really good back-up safety for the Bears, and has even been in the running a few times for a starting position. The biggest reason Chicago has kept him around for so long is his ST contribution.
S Danny McCray - Strong all-around special teams player, excels in kick coverage. Struggles playing regular defense as a safety.
CB Tony Carter is an interesting case. He's a sixth year player who was originally undrafted but scheduled to become an RFA - I think that means the Broncos must either tender him first or second round, or that's it, since he has no "original round" tender available. Can anyone help with that?
He's been a spot starter and decent nickelback and a steady special teams player, though he's most famous for this. If the Broncos could tender him at something like a 4th or 5th round he'd be worth it, but since they can't, not sure what they'll do with T.C. I expect they'll try to extend him with DRC still unsigned, but for now, he's worth keeping an eye on for a team looking for a speedy special teamer and cornerback depth.
Trindon Holliday: The Broncos will let him walk, according to reports just yesterday. He's a kick returner and a punt returner, and a dynamic one (had two return TDs in the playoffs a year ago). But he has severe fumbling issues, hence the letting him walk.
WR Micheal Spurlock - Mainly a returner, but can contribute on the cover units as well
LB Rocky McIntosh - saw a few snaps on defense here or there, but primarily a special teams player
S John Wendling - filled in a bit at safety in 2012, but best known as being one of the Lions' top special teams players in recent years (Lions have already said they aren't re-signing him, though)
ILB Jamari Lattimore (RFA) - Latt filled in for an injured Brad Jones at inside linebacker for a few games this year, but he's been a special teams stud on both return and coverage teams.
FB John Kuhn - In addition to bring the Packers' fullback and Aaron Rodgers' personal protector, Kuhn is a fixture as a blocker on the Packers' return teams.
ILB Rob Francois - Another key ILB backup, but he was lost to an ACL injury early last season. His greatest value though has always been as a special teamer.
Dexter McCluster: Punt returner, only done it in two years of his career
Quintin Demps: Backup safety but also returned kicks
Husain Abdullah: Backup safety but also played on the coverage units
Austin Spitler, linebacker - Miami released Spitler last year, then realized they needed linebacker depth and special teams help, so they brought back the veteran. Potentially, Miami could look to hold on to Spitler, but last year's attempt to replace him does not make it appear the club has any desire to break the bank in an attempt to keep him.
Marlon Moore, wide receiver - As an undrafted free agent, Moore spent the 2010 through 2012 seasons with the Dolphins before signing as a free agent with the San Francisco 49ers last year. He was released by the 49ers after Week 7, at which point Miami brought him back to help with the special teams. He appeared in the Dolphins' last eight games and proved his value as a special teamer. The Dolphins could look to try to retain Moore, either prior to the start of free agency or after Moore is allowed to test the market, primarily to keep him as a special teams option.
(RFA) R.J. Stanford, cornerback - Stanford joined the Dolphins from the Carolina Panthers in 2012, and has established himself as a depth option at cornerback and a special teams player. A return to the Dolphins makes sense for both sides, but it would not be shocking if Miami allowed him to sign with another team, either.
LB Larry Dean was a pretty decent kick and punt coverage guy for the Vikings, but he's a RFA, so I'm not sure if that affects your post or not.
Last month I wrote a post including special teams stats from multiple sources.
Safeties Colt Anderson and Kurt Coleman will be free agents and could be of interest.
WR Jacoby Ford: One of only a few return men to have three return touchdowns in a season. The 5-8 receiver proved to be a lethal return man in his first two seasons in the league. But midway through his second season he was injured and hasn't been able to stay healthy since. The Raiders are moving on from him as proven by his being a healthy scratch the final couple games of last season.
CB Phillip Adams: Has had return duties from time to time. Plays on coverage teams as well, though not very well.
The San Diego Chargers' special teams captain (and by far its best special teamer) Darrell Stuckey is a free agent. He's probably looking for an opportunity to start at free safety somewhere, though.
S Chris Maragos: kickoff/punt coverage teams
FB Michael Robinson: fullback, special teams ace
WR Golden Tate: Punt returner
LB Dekoda Watson - Dominant as a gunner, but plays on almost every special teams unit, and does it very well. Incredibly athletic, and has potential as a linebacker.
LB Adam Hayward - Long-time team captain, great locker room guy, very solid on all special teams unit and a versatile backup linebacker. Declining with age, though.