The 49ers will be gearing up to play the Packers in six days, but before we fully immerse ourselves in 49ers-Packers preparation, I wanted to take a look at one aspect of Friday's roster cuts that hasn't been discussed much.
In getting down to their 53-man roster, the 49ers traded Colin Jones to the Carolina Panthers for what is rumored to be a 2014 seventh round draft pick, followed by releasing veteran Rock Cartwright. Jones was a staple of the special teams unit last year, and Cartwright was a respected special teams leader in Oakland last year.
The 49ers dominated last year in all phases of special teams, thanks in part to high profile guys like Andy Lee, David Akers and Ted Ginn Jr. However, the coverage on the kicks/punts and the blocking on the returns was incredibly important for their success. Andy Lee can boom punts as well as anybody, but having a coverage unit that can get to the returners and properly tackle them is key.
Brad Seely is a well-respected special teams coordinator, and he furthered that respect with last year's dominant performances across the board. Football Outsiders ranked the 49ers second in Special Teams DVOA. They ranked the team as follows in each category:
Kick Return: t-3rd
Punt Return: 3rd
Although the players were the ones that performed, Brad Seely likely deserves credit for whatever he did to coach them up. You can take the most athletic players in the world, but if they lack discipline and understanding, they are not going to be able to form a cohesive unit. Special teams is as much about "the team, the team, the team" as anything in football.
While I am not pessimistic about the 49ers special teams coverage and blocking units in 2012, I will be paying a bit closer attention to them early in the season. A few weeks into 2011 we knew this was a fairly awesome unit. We celebrated the unit and did not really have to think too much about what they were doing each week.
As 2012 gets going, we are not necessarily back to square one with them, but they will likely need to build back up the trust and confidence we had. There is a lot of talent there, but the question will be whether it can mesh as a unit. Guys like Darcel McBath and Trenton Robinson will likely find themselves working on the special teams units. Can they mesh with the "Tony Montana squad" (NSFW language)?
Anthony Dixon will be back on special teams and will likely be looked to as one of the leaders, alongside a guy like Tavares Gooden. There is plenty of returning talent on the unit, but enough changes that it at least remains on my mind as the season gets going. I have faith in Brad Seely, but I'm still taking a bit of a wait and see approach.