I understand most people aren’t going to jump for joy when they see their favorite team signing depth pieces brought in to play a role on special teams. But, generally speaking, there is rarely any spirited discussion revolving around special teams until it ends up costing a team a game or two once the season rolls around.
The 49ers have been proactive in regards to addressing the apparent deficiencies they had on the often forgotten side of the ball last season. There is a clear commitment to getting better in the game's third phase, highlighted by the two-year deal they gave to wide receiver/return specialist Ray-Ray McCloud.
McCloud is coming off of a season where he led the NFL in punt returns with 40 and total punt return yardage at 367. McCloud was also top five in average yard per punt return at 9.5 yards, which is impressive given the disparity between his volume when compared to the others in the top five.
McCloud’s value on special teams also carries over to kick returns, where he had 35 returns for 776 yards in 2021. The 776 kick returns McCloud amassed were the fourth-highest in the entire NFL last season. McCloud gives the 49ers a bonafide return specialist in both facets, something they have sorely been lacking for years.
The 49ers have ranked in the bottom five in average yards per kickoff return in each of the last two seasons and in the bottom six in four of the five years that Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have been in San Francisco. The front office is clearly making a concerted effort to address the mediocrity in the return game in recent seasons, and signing McCloud to a multi-year deal is a solid step in the right direction.
While it’s good that they grabbed a return specialist of their own, they also need players to bring down the dynamic returners on opposing teams. The 49ers made a statement that they were serious about adding some credibility to their special teams unit by signing linebacker Oren Burks to a two-year deal.
Burks gained credibility in Green Bay as a special teams ace with a knack for making plays to limit opposing teams in the return game. Burks was tied for sixth in the NFL in tackles on special teams last season, which is something I will circle back to momentarily.
Burks also provides some depth in the linebacking corps, and he comes into San Francisco already possessing familiarity with star linebacker Fred Warner. Burks noted that he and Warner both entered the league in the same draft class in 2018 and had a chance to connect at the senior bowl and the scouting combine as they both went through the pre-draft process. Burks had this to say about Warner.
“Excited to get to work with him. He’s a great dude, and he’s been a leader on this team for his whole career obviously and just excited to play next to him.”
The 49ers also came to an agreement with another player who is pivotal to their success on special teams, signing Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles to a one-year deal. Flannigan-Fowles has been with the 49ers each of the last three seasons. Like Burks, offers versatility as a solid depth piece in the linebacker room while primarily playing a crucial role on the 49ers coverage units special teams.
Remember when I mentioned that Burks was tied for sixth in tackles on special teams in 2021? Guess who was one of the players he was tied with? Flannigan-Fowles. The converted safety plays with a tremendous amount of speed and shows great burst going sideline to sideline, traits that have allowed Flannigan-Fowles to blossom into a very important piece on the 49ers special teams unit.
There is a long way to go in this offseason, but the 49ers’ commitment to improving their special teams tells me two things.
1. They are displaying self-awareness, making it clear they understand that they can’t afford to go into this season having special teams be the same liability it was in 2021. They looked in the mirror and addressed a weakness that could have been glossed over for another season.
2. Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch are showing the ability to adapt and be flexible. From the outside looking in, the 49ers haven’t really seemed to prioritize shoring up their return and coverage units on special teams in recent seasons. The willingness to add bonafide special team aces shows me that there has been a clear shift in organizational philosophy and the valuing of players whose primary contributions will be on special teams.