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Special Teams: Long look back, brief look forward

If this is the first post you're seeing today, just a quick heads-up that there was a lot of little things happening yesterday afternoon/evening that I threw up in various posts/promoted FanPosts. So, if you want to discuss the potential franchising of Terrell Suggs, the 49ers just saying no to Vick or the new uniforms for 2009, head to the appropriate link.

We now reach the final position in our review of 2008 and brief look to 2009. If you missed any of the previous editions, here are links: QB, RB, FB, WR, TE, OL, DL, OLB, ILB, CB, S.

Amidst all the turmoil in the organization, this last area might be the one area of the game where the 49ers have succeeded pretty consistently the last few of years: special teams. They're not the flashiest group at times, but they have gotten the job done rather consistently. It'd be nice if they were getting that job done in bigger situations, but I won't quibble for the purposes of this review.

Andy Lee: He may look young (although not nearly as young as former punter Tommy Thompson, but it's safe to say the man is a beast with a cannon for a leg. His numbers decreased this year, but that was due in part to the relative improvement of the 49ers offense, as compared to last year. His numbers went down across the board, but he still finished 3rd in the NFL gross average and 8th in net average. His best highlight was his NFL high 82 yarder against the Patriots. Lee signed a 6-year deal prior to 2007 after the 49ers matched the Steelers offer sheet and I could not be happier. The remaining 4 years on his contract (and any additional years) will only cement his legacy as the best punter in 49ers history (with due respect of course for Tommy Davis).

Joe Nedney: In four seasons with the 49ers, Nedney, a product of San Jose State, has quietly amassed an 87.83% completion percentage on field goals. That's significant because the NFL career leader in percentage is Nick Folk at 86.79%. Nedney has never been a flashy, well-known kicker. However, for 49ers fans that have dealt with the likes of Jeff Chandler and Jose Cortez, this is a welcome respite. Although Nedney is certainly not perfect, he is usually pretty money, and any misses are usually made up later in the game. He's signed through 2009 and given the care management has taken in maintaing cap space, I'd hope they could spare a few bucks to resign Nedney before he hits free agency.

Allen Rossum: Over the last few years, 49ers fans have dealt with the likes of Maurice Hicks, Arnaz Battle, Brandon Williams and Michael "Beerman" Lewis returning kicks and punts. Not the worst options in the world, but definitely nowhere near the best. Delanie Walker has been mixed in as well and had some success. However, one of the biggest impact signings last offseason turned out to be Allen Rossum. He had injury issues that kept him out for a month, but when healthy, he was a potential home-run hitter every time he returned a kick.

He had one return touchdown, but I recall quite a few instances where he set up the 49ers offense quite nicely with a big return. Now, the offense didn't always convert those opportunities, but that's not his fault. He finished the season 6th in kickoff return average, and although he didn't qualify with only 15 punt returns, he finished 7th among everybody with a punt return. The 49ers have lacked that kind of punch for some time and it was much appreciated, and one of the bigger surprises (at least for me) of the season. Of course, that directly leads to our Looking Forward question in just a moment.

Brian Jennings: The best thing we can say about Jennings is that he was rarely mention. Jennings is signed through 2009 and I'd imagine the only way he's not back is if he gets a bigger offer from somebody else. Given how specialized he has become, I don't know if that should be expected.

Looking Forward
Let's get right to the point. Kicker and punter are clearly fine going forward. The big question is in the return game. Allen Rossum is a free agent and the 49ers have to decide if they want Rossum back, or if they want to work on developing a returner of the future. They signed Michael Spurlock, a man who became the first Buccaneer to return a kickoff for a touchdown, to reserve/futures contract. If they want Rossum back, or they want to grab somebody in the draft, that sort of contract will not get in their way.

The two biggest names as potential return men right now would probably be Jeremy Maclin and Percy Harvin. We discussed Maclin in the scouting report and speed is certainly his forte. Harvin, a WR out of Florida, appears to be a more snake-bitten version of Maclin. He's got crazy speed but had injury issues this past season that might give teams a strong enough reason to wait on him. I'm not a huge fan of taking Maclin in the first round. However, if the 49ers addressed pass rush or offensive line in the first round, I would certainly be a little more intrigued if a guy like Harvin fell a bit into the second round.

So what is the best way for the 49ers to address the return game? They've got some potential candidates on the current roster, but none has proven themselves on the level of Allen Rossum. Of course, Rossum isn't getting any younger, so maybe it's time to develop the younger talent. Given that free agency opens before the draft, we should know what's up with Rossum pretty quickly.