On Friday, the San Francisco 49ers formally announced the hiring of Richard Hightower to serve as special teams coach in 2017. The 49ers are on their fourth head coach in as many years, and Kyle Shanahan is bringing in the fourth special teams coordinator in as many years. Hightower follows Derius Swinton, who followed Thomas McGaughey, who followed four years of Brad Seely.
The 49ers special teams was pretty bad in 2014 and 2015, but we saw some improvement in 2016. It came up to the middle of the pack, but that’s an improvement from where it was before. And given all the injuries and plug and play the 49ers had to deal with, it’s a surprise special teams was not worse.
Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin puts together an annual ranking of special teams units, and we’re back with a third straight year checking out the rankings. He looks at 22 special teams categories, ranging from field goals and returns to starting line of scrimmage and penalties. He then ranks all 32 NFL teams, with the best team getting one point, the second best getting two points, and so on through the No. 32 team getting 32 points. The goal is to get the lowest point total possible.
This past season, the 49ers ranked No. 16 in the NFL. Right in the middle of the pack. Gosselin includes the best and worst in each of the 22 categories. The 49ers were last in giveaways, with four, but otherwise did not show up In 2015, they ranked No. 27, and in 2014, they ranked No. 24. During the first three Harbaugh years, they ranked No. 2, No. 20, and No. 7. That’s some serious variance.
The 49ers will be making significant roster changes this offseason, and that means we will likely see some big changes on the special teams units. The top five players in special teams snaps last season were Dontae Johnson, Michael Wilhoite, Aaron Burbridge, Shaun Draughn, and Shayne Skov. Nick Bellore, a special teams staple, finishing sixth in spite of missing two games.
From that group, Wilhoite and Draughn are free agents. Johnson seemed to be working his way off the team, losing a lot of defensive snaps. Burbridge was a late round pick and Skov is a UDFA who did not get any real opportunities at inside linebacker. Whether that changes under the new regime remains to be seen, but I would be surprised if he got more work out of it with the 49ers.