I think we all have noticed the ebb and flow of the Niners' special teams units in the last few years. While even-numbered years have been kind to the San Francisco Giants, they've been less kind to our special teams performances. After an excellent 2013 season, we took a step back last year. I attribute our woes in coverage to be largely due to the loss of CJ Spillman who seemed to be in on most every big play the year before. Of course aging kicking legs and new challenges with a new stadium also played a role. But I think there's reason to think that 2015 will again show a bounce-back with the addition of some new (mostly young) talent to the unit.
Coverage and Return units
Expected big contributors:
Trey Millard. This is a guy who his college coach called not only the team's best special teams player, but "the best player on our football team". Enough said. As with any player returning from a major injury, optimism must be tempered a bit until evidence of recovery, but if healthy, Millard should be an instant contributor.
Jaquiski Tartt. I can't find a lot of actual reports about his special teams play (if he played at all), but Tartt sure seems like he possesses the skillset and the physical attributes to make an impact. If this glowing report is even partially true, Tartt should add a lot of value to coverage units.
Nick Bellore. Hey, why let the young guys have all the fun? Ostensibly an inside linebacker, Bellore has made his name on special teams, making PFF's 2014 All-Pro team for his work on kickoff returns. He'll add back a veteran presence to fill the void left by the offseason departures of Bubba Ventrone and (at least for now) Kassim Osgood.
Craig Dahl. The man some love to hate was the Niners' own choice for best special teams player in 2014, leading the team with 14 special teams tackles. I don't see Dahl going anywhere in 2015.
Nick Moody, Corey Lemonier, L.J. McCray, Tony Jerrod-Eddie all played significant special teams snaps, but none really shined. Kenneth Acker has experience as a gunner, but is unknown in this role at the NFL level. Chris Cook was our highest-rated special teams player by PFF at +3.9, and sniffed out a fake punt by the Rams. He faces intense competition for a roster spot, but if he makes the active roster, I think he has a good chance to be an above-average special teams player, though likely not a star.
I'd like to see Blake Bell as personal punt protector. He has the size and athleticism to do it, and presents a unique double-threat on fake punts: direct snap to Bell and he can run or pass like few others in the league. This is very similar to the strategy used by the University of Washington with Shaq Thompson: the threat of a direct snap to Shaq essentially neutralized any attempts at punt blocking by UW's opponents in 2014. Crazy, I know. Also included in this category is Mike Davis, who might try and play special teams, but more likely will be inactive barring injuries to the three RBs ahead of him in the depth chart.
Net change: improved
Here the whole category is filed under "Maybe/maybe not". Bruce Ellington and Carlos Hyde both put in respectable performances as kick returners in 2014, while Ellington struggled a little more with punts. Hyde is penciled in as our #1 running back, so his special teams days are probably done. Ellington's role is more unclear, but he should compete both for return duties as well as a larger role in the offense in 2015. Reggie Bush wants to return punts. Keith Reaser has (unofficial) 4.3 speed and has kick return experience. Acker has also returned kicks. The most intriguing prospect is rugby superstar Jarryd Hayne who's rugby talents should translate to punt returns. However he is so new to the game his most likely landing spot this year is on the practice squad. The release of Trindon Holliday means that the front office must think there's enough potential talent on the roster to make a dedicated returner obsolete. There is a lot of potential, no obvious stars yet, but given KR/PR was not a real area of strength for the Niners in 2014, I doubt there is much regression here.
Net change: same or improved
Bradley Pinion is the special teams big story coming out of the draft this year. With the trade of Andy Lee (PFF's 8th overall punter in 2014), Pinion is assured the starting job and has some very big shoes to fill. Reports from OTAs were uniformly positive. A nice bonus is his ability to handle kickoffs if Dawson's leg strength continues to decline. I doubt he equals Lee's performance in his rookie year, but getting close, while at the same time getting younger and cheaper, will help the team in the long run.
Phil Dawson saw a bit of a regression in 2014. While PFF grades rarely tell the whole story, a drop from +27.5 in 2013 to +2.7 in 2014 is likely to represent something real. After an initial shaky start at Levis, Dawson was a consistent field goal kicker. He was less solid on kickoffs, with more that seemed to be easily returnable compared to 2013. The addition of Pinion may help with this problem, allowing Dawson to focus on field goals in what likely is his last season with the Niners.
Net change: same
Summary: All of this must be taken with a grain of salt until the roster is finalized. The players penciled in for special teams roles are often the ones on the bubble for making the roster in the first place. That said, if at least some of these players make the active roster, I expect a much better coverage unit this year, with returns and kicking/punting to be about the same.