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49ers positional review: Special teams were “good enough” in 2019

Reviewing each phase of the kicking game

NFL: FEB 02 Super Bowl LIV - Chiefs v 49ers Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’ve gone over the majority of the San Francisco 49ers offense, and the linebackers. Let’s talk about special teams. The 49errs were 12th in the NFL in special teams DVOA. The kicking units improved as the season went along, thanks to Robbie Gould’s health, but it would have been tough to get worse. The 49ers were “good enough” on special teams, but there is plenty of room for improvement. Let’s review each.

Did you wish for more of an impact?

I wouldn’t draft a punter or kicker in any round as the value isn’t there. Mitch Wishnowsky could boom 50-yard punts time and time again, or make impressive tackles in the open field. Give me a Day 3 athlete I can potentially develop into a starter every day of the week. We can’t change the past, though. The 49ers DVOA went from 0.0 in 2018 to 6.0 in 2019 as a punting unit. That’s a significant increase.

Bradley Pinion averaged 43.7 yards per punt, and 32% of Pinion’s punts landed inside of the 20-yard line. Wishnowsky averaged 44.9 yards per punt while 44% of his punts landed inside the 20. There isn’t much of an argument here. The 49ers improved in the area they wanted to. Force teams to drive the length of the field against your historic pass-rush. The plan worked out well.

Replacing Richie

Richie James was 12th in the NFL in punt return average in 2019. That’s not bad, but that’s not the only way you should view a punt returner. Fielding the ball is key. I don’t mean simply catching the ball, but knowing when to field it on the bounce so you don’t cost your team ten or more yards in field position after the ball bounces. That was an issue at times for James this season. When he had the ball, he was great—and James should get credit for that.

In 2018, the Niners punt return unit was -6.4 in DVOA. That number rose to 2.4 in 2019, which was good for ninth in the NFL. I’d increase James’ snap count at receiver and see if I can find someone that’s a bit more comfortable judging the ball in the air. Maybe a second-round pick that took a bunch of punt returns to the house in college.

Good as (a healthy) Gould

It was a tale of two seasons for Niners kicker Robbie Gould, who missed seven kicks in the first six games. Because San Francisco was blowing teams out, we didn’t talk about it much. After Gould returned from injury, he only missed one field goal, and that came in Baltimore in a tough situation, as well as an extra point against Atlanta. Two missed kicks in 43 attempts is a lot more like one of the leagues all-time most accurate kickers.

A lot of fans wanted to move on from Gould during his struggles. If you recall the offseason, there was a little drama as to whether Gould would even play in San Francisco this past season. All that is behind us, and, by the looks of it, so are Gould’s misses.

Recognizing Richie

I’m not moving James off of kick returns. He didn’t have many opportunities as most kicks end up as touchbacks these days, but Richie was effective. James was eighth in the NFL in kick return average at 21.4 yards per attempt. It’s Week 16, and the Rams just marched down the field on their opening drive to for a touchdown. James weaves his way through Rams kicking unit and returns the kick 81 yards to Los Angeles’s 19-yard line. James had a big return right before the half against Baltimore to put the 49ers in a position to be aggressive as well.

His speed and “wiggle” make James better suited as a kick returner. Dante Pettis and his unorthodox style movements make him a better punt returner. Both should be involved more in some capacity in 2020.