Thus far, we've taken a look at most positions on the San Francisco 49ers from a season ago, and now have just a few remaining -- cornerback, defensive line and offensive line among them. But there's another group I'd like to take care of first, mostly because the cornerback position includes like 40 different guys and the offensive line just makes me sad: special teams.
It's a unit that, as a whole, actually significantly under-performed for the 49ers a season ago. I'm well-known for being particularly inconsolable when it comes to changes on special teams, and I'm a certified professional overreactor (it's a word look it up) on top of that. Each and every year, the 49ers make changes and I expect it all to come crashing down around their shoulders.
Typically, that doesn't happen and I delight in being wrong yet again. This time around, I actually took a step back from the crazy and lo and behold, the 49ers kind of stunk up the place on special teams. The kicking and punting game wasn't as stellar as it was in recent years, but it wasn't terrible ... it's the coverage units that suffered.
One of the best measures for special teams excellence (or lack thereof) is the yearly compiled rankings from The Dallas Morning News. After ranking among the top two teams in 2011 and 2013, the 49ers dropped all the way to No. 23 this past season. Their rankings assign points according to a team's standing in 22 different categories, and you can check them out here.
Notably, the 49ers lost some big names, like C.J. Spillman and Anthony Dixon. Michael Wilhoite also took on a more prominent role on defense and Darryl Morris was another contributor who was ultimately turned away. Bubba Ventrone, a guy I thought out-played Kassim Osgood in coverage, was released (and ultimately brought back down the stretch before the 49ers played musical chairs with the 53rd spot on the roster) initially and couldn't contribute.
Brad Seely has left and the 49ers have a new coordinator in Thomas McGaughey. Like the rest of the coaching staff I have no idea what to expect from him, but let's just get to a look at the 49ers' special teamers in 2015 before taking our look forward, shall we?
Phil Dawson - 16 games, 25-31 field goals, 80.6 field goal percentage
Recently, we've talked about Dawson and his potential to be a salary cap casualty, and I asked whether or not the 49ers should be worried about him going forward. Ultimately, I think the answer to the question is "probably not," but Dawson's regression from 2013 to 2014 is noteworthy.
He connected on 25 of 31 field goal attempts, including 8 of 9 from 30-39 yards, 5 of 7 from 40-49 yards and 6 of 9 from 50-plus yards. That's a field goal percentage of 80.6 percent, which ranks him near the bottom of the league -- 25th overall -- among kickers last season. The lowest was Blair Walsh of the Minnesota Vikings at 74.3 percent and the highest was Adam Vinatieri and his 96.8 percent.
That field goal percentage is among the lowest of Dawson's career, a significant drop from the 88.9 percent he pulled with the 49ers in 2013. He's also among the oldest players in the league and I can't imagine him playing beyond this coming season. That all makes it sound like things are going to be a disaster next season, but Dawson has skirted this percentage before and he's rebounded from it nearly every time.
Andy Lee - 16 games, 46.8 average punt yardage, 28 within 20-yard line
Obviously, having a discussion about Lee's punting also includes a discussion about the coverage units. As I stated above, those units were particularly poor more often than naught. Lee was relied on an awful lot, but saw his net punting average drop from 41.7 yards to 39.6 yards. That said, aside from one or two uncharacteristically poor punts, I saw no reason to expect Lee is anything but a Pro Bowl-level punter. He's not a concern.
Craig Dahl - 16 games, 14 special teams tackles (6 solo), 8 "knockdowns"
The 49ers released their own special teams rankings of sorts following the conclusion of the regular season, and the stats above are taken from their own list. They credit Dahl with the most special teams tackles at 14 overall, with six of those being solo tackles and eight of those being assisted tackles. They also credit him with eight knockdowns -- second on the team -- and five big plays, which is totally arbitrary.
I've said more than my fair share about Dahl as a backup safety. I think any time Eric Reid or Antoine Bethea are out of the game is a bad, bad time for the 49ers, but Dahl was effective on special teams. I thought he wasn't necessarily as fast as needed on punt coverage, but he was definitely great in kick coverage. His angles are solid and that likely comes from having actual defensive experience. But again, he leaves something to be desired in punt coverage.
Kassim Osgood and Bubba Ventrone
These would be the "next tier" of guys, in my opinion. Osgood was signed specifically as a special teamer and through he was only credited with seven total special teams tackles, he had nine knockdowns and eight "big plays," according to the 49ers. He's fast on punt coverage, fast on kick coverage and I see no reason why he won't be brought back to training camp with a chance to compete for a spot next season.
Then there's Ventrone, a guy I feel takes better angles than either Osgood or Dahl and is a solid tackler on top of that. He wasn't around for most of the season and only put up three tackles and four knockdowns, but again, the 49ers brought him in as a reaction to poor special teams play. He should be right there with Osgood in training camp next season.
I don't have enough to say about a lot of guys to give them their own sections, so we'll quickly cover them here. Outside linebacker Corey Lemonier may or may not have a future as an actual defender, but he put up eight tackles on special teams, which is solid. Problem is, I don't think he's especially fast and he's more useful on kickoffs than he is as a gunner. He's not out there throwing pancake blocks either, which is the kind of thing you want out of a linebacker on special teams.
Then there's L.J. McCray, who was a surprise inclusion on the 53-man roster last season. McCray is eager, fast, young and may even have some potential on defense down the line, so his spot is solid. The problem is that eagerness resulted in a couple bone-headed penalties this past season, not something you want as the last man to make it on the 53-man roster. McCray had eight tackles on special teams and six "big plays."
Aside from those guys, the only others I think are worth mentioning are Nick Moody and Kyle Nelson. Moody is needed depth at inside linebacker given what happened a season ago (and he played well in relief), but he was also pretty solid on special teams. He had four tackles and four knockdowns, but like most of the other guys, doesn't have a whole lot of speed and isn't ever the first guy to the ball-carrier.
Nelson is the long snapper and I have almost nothing to say about him. No, getting rid of Brian Jennings did not lead to the demise of civilization as we know it ... just my soul. He did fine and is a capable blocker and tackler.
Guys like Spillman and Dixon were among the best in the league at what they did, and I think players like Moody, McCray and Lemonier are simply not as good as them. They're not on that level when it comes to special teams, but Dahl is capable of Osgood is as good as ever. Before, the 49ers had several "big-name" special teamers that comprised an elite unit, now they basically just have Osgood making big plays and Dahl being decent.
Looking ahead, they'll need progression from some of the younger guys or they'll need to bring in some new faces. I imagine Osgood is back and Dahl as well, but beyond that I'm not sure what to expect. It's hard to "look ahead" at coverage units. For what it's worth, McGaughey worked with the New York Jets last season and they finished 20th overall in the above rankings. That included one of the league's worst punt coverage units, as well.
I think what happens with Dawson is interesting in that the 49ers definitely need to address the position soon, but probably not so soon that they need to worry about it this offseason. As such, we're not going to take any specific looks at free agents or college players. Suffice to say the 49ers need more speed on the coverage units, and someone who can be a leader on special teams.