Every year, teams sign a host of depth players who will primarily contribute on special teams. A team would like some offensive or defensive versatility from special teamers, but they will find some specialists that play almost exclusively with the four special teams units.
For the San Francisco 49ers, linebacker Mark Nzeocha was one of those specialists. The team signed him off the Dallas Cowboys practice squad on September 25th last season when they placed Tank Carradine on injured reserve. Nzeocha was inactive three of his first four games, but then appeared in the final nine games. In his ten games active, Nzeocha played nine defensive snaps and 180 special teams snaps.
Nzeocha was a seventh round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 2015. He was on the 53-man roster seven games in 2015 and all 16 games in 2016. In 2017, he was released and signed to the practice squad at the start of the season before the 49ers signed him following Week 3.
Experience: 3 accrued seasons
Weight: 240 lbs
Would have been a restricted free agent this offseason, but re-signed with the 49ers in January on a one-year contract. His base salary is $705,000, and the deal includes a $30,000 signing bonus, $25,000 workout bonus, and $40,000 roster bonus. If he makes the roster, his cap hit would be $785,000. If he is released, the team will carry $55,000 in dead money.
How he might improve in 2018
Much like any other in-season acquisition (clearly there are comps to Jimmy Garoppolo here!), Nzeocha had to learn on the fly. Special teams does not require as much playbook learning, but there is still plenty to figure out when you join an entirely new group of special teamers. He will be competing for a similar opportunity this season, and ten games active with special teams coach Richard Hightower. One could potentially see improvement in that respect.
He also has 14 weeks with the 49ers plus now a full offseason to learn the defensive playbook. His best opportunity at playing defense is likely when injuries mount, but he’s at least had some time to learn and develop what he might do if he gets such an opportunity.
How he might regress in 2018
I don’t know that his work as a special teamer is likely to regress, so much as special teams as a whole could very well take a step back this season. We will see some new faces on the coverage and return units, and it is unpredictable how they will perform. Even though he is now 28, I would be surprised if by season’s end we would point to him specifically as an issue with the group — but, who knows.
Odds of making the roster
Re-signing a restricted free agent for a league minimum base salary and some modest bonus money does not exactly say, “we’re ride or die with this guy,” but the team likes him enough to want to give him a chance to compete this summer. When you’re talking special teamer roster chances, it can be unpredictable. I listed Nzeocha as weak bubble in my post-draft bubble watch. He strikes me as a guy who has a shot, but it’s really going to depend on how some of the younger players shake out. The addition of Korey Toomer and Fred Warner, coupled with the Brock Coyle extension suggests he could be a guy released and maybe he ends up re-signed if he’s available later and injuries mount.