Fearless Predictions: Why the 49ers will be a Top Five Special Teams’ Unit in 2017

Go Fearless or Go Home: Niners Live presents: Why the 49ers will be a top five special teams’ unit in 2017. 


The recap:

The San Francisco 49ers loaded up on their special team’s unit recently with key free agent additions this offseason that netted the need for more speed in the return game along with sure tackling to bring it together and increase production for the 49ers Special Teams Unit in 2017. Niners Live will give a full breakdown and assessment of the new acquisitions shortly.

Note: These additions are the reasons why the 49ers will be a Top 5 Special Teams unit in 2017.

Niners Live recently discussed Phil Dawson in: Will Kicker Robbie Gould be Able to Fill Mr. Reliable Phil Dawson’s Shoes?

Kick return stats:

In 2015, with 2016 Special Teams Coach Richard Hightower on staff, the 49ers ranked 19th in kick return average gaining 993, just under 1,000 total yards on the year, which was good enough for a seventh place ranking for Total Kick Return yards and tied for fourth in returns with over 20 yards (31). The kick return team was led by Bruce Ellington (who was lost for the season last year in training camp due to a hamstring injury) with 665 yards on 26 returns for an average of 25.6 per return (NFL.com).

Punt return yards didn’t fare so well, ranking twenty-second and twenty-seventh respectively with Ellington averaging only 7.2 yards on his team-leading 19 punt return attempts. This ranked an abysmal 47th in the league. Last season’s 2016 team leader Jeremy Kerley lead the league in punt return attempts in 2015 with 48, but didn’t fare much better, ranking 32nd. Last season Kerley saw his number of attempts (21) average (7.5), and average per return ranked (38), dropping from his 2015 season with the Jets, but this did improve on the number from Ellington’s 2015 season (NFL.com).

Coverage units saw similar bottom of the league numbers in 2015 and 2016. Ranking 24th and 25th in kick return yards and average yards in 2015, and 24th and 28th in 2016. With punt return units ranking seeing a dip from 2015 when they ranked 17th in total yards allowed and 8th (6.4 yards per return) in average yards allowed, down to 24th and 19th without Hightower and his core guys in 2016.


The number of field goals attempted and made is out of control of the kicking teams themselves since it is factored by the offense and defense. So we will focus on the average of those attempts made. In 2016 Mr. Reliable, Phil Dawson, ranked 14th at 85.71 percent, making 18 of 21 field goals which was down from 2015 when he made 24 of 27 field goals for 88.88 percent, ranking 11th. New 49ers kicker for 2017, Robbie Gould, made 10 of 10 field goals last season for the Giants after being cut at the end of the pre-season and signing with the team in the wake of the Josh Brown Domestic Violence suspension. In 2015, Gould was 33 for 39 (84.61%), ranking 20th in the NFL (NFL.com).

Let’s look at the new additions for 2017:

Robbie Gould: (6′-1″) 181 lbs.

After ranking 20th in the NFL in field goal percentage, Robbie Gould was cut by the Chicago Bears at the end of the 2016 preseason, losing a training camp battle with Connor Barth. Barth went on to rank 30th in the NFL. Gould, who signed with the New York Giants, was perfect for the year going 10 for 10 on the season. His three misses of the year came on extra points where he was 20 for 23 (87%). Signing Gould after letting Dawson go was a decent move. In Gould, you have a reliable veteran kicker who carries an 85.89 percent for his career, ranking 7th amongst active kickers. This is four spots ahead of Phil Dawson and 2nd for active kickers who have been in the league at least as long as he has, which is second only to Mike Vanderjagt (NFL.com).

Don Jones: (5’11”) 195 lbs.

Don Jones is a special team’s ace. In nine games with the Houston Texans he registered 11 tackles on special teams. That ranked sixth in the NFL. It is quite possible that if he played all 16 games he would lead the league in the category. The four-year veteran has registered 37 special team tackles and one forced fumble in 56 games. Look for Jones to become a core player on all units he is a member of as he has been through his career. Jones is regularly one of the leaders in special teams tackles for his team. (49ers.com)

Brock Coyle: (6-1) 245 lbs.

Coyle was picked up by the 49ers to replace Nick Bellore as one of the team’s primary special teams players. Coyle, in three years with the Seattle Seahawks, had only five career starts since his primary role was special teams. In those three years he amassed 13 total tackles on special teams, including playoff games.

Recently Niners Live discussed: Jones and Coyle paying underrated dividends.

Dekoda Watson: (6′-2″) 245 lbs.

Watson played his 2016 season with the Denver Broncos. Throughout his seven year career he played in 89 games (seven starts) and tallied 88 tackles, four sacks, four fumble recoveries and 50 special teams tackles. Like Jones, last season he played in nine games and recorded a team-high 11 special teams tackles along with six tackles on defense. Watson, At 6’2” and 245 lbs., runs a 4.56 40-yard dash and has the speed and thickness to become a weapon for Coach Hightower.

Logan Paulsen: (6’5”) 268 lbs.

Kyle Shanahan picked up his former Redskin tight end and blocking specialist. The special thing about Paulsen is that he is arguably one of the best blocking tight ends in football (Nick Wagoner on ESPN.com). He will be one of the guys who will help players adapt to Shanahan’s system along with opening lanes on special teams for two high-velocity kick return candidates: Marquise Goodwin and Aldrick Robinson.

Marquise Goodwin: (5’10”) 183 lbs., 4.27 seconds

Goodwin went into the NFL combine in 2013 and ran the 3rd fastest 40-yard dash in NFL history at 4.27 seconds. The former University of Texas receiver returned a total of 44 kickoffs returns for 985 yards and one touchdown. Before he was haunted by injuries with the Bills (2014-2015), Goodwin’s role was steadily increasing in his rookie season. He played in 12 games and totaled 16 kickoff returns for 351 yards (49ers.com).

Aldrick Robinson: (5’10”) 184 lbs., 4.43 seconds  

Robinson is another speed demon who clocked a 4.43 40-yard dash in the 2011 NFL scouting combine. This will be the 3rd team on which Robinson has followed Shanahan’s lead. Even though his numbers do not scream at you, he managed to play in 52 games with 50 catches for 931 yards. He was brought in to help at receiver, but could also compete on special teams at punt returner (49ers.com).

Recently Niners Live discussed: Goodwin and Robinson in “Speed Kills”.

Jeremy Kerley (5’9”) 188 lbs., 4.56 seconds

Kerley was the team’s punt return man from last season. He is sure handed and reliable, but has not shown the elusiveness and bursts of speed needed to break away in the return game. He will have plenty of competition in his efforts to earn the punt return job this season. Kerley has not averaged better than a 38 ranking in the past two seasons with the Jets and 49ers.

Important to note: Another player to note is Kyle Juszczyk, although his role has yet to be defined on special teams.

I’ll close with this:

If Richard Hightower was ranked 7th in special teams with the Chicago Bears last season as an assistant, the 49ers surely invested in him making the top five in special teams in 2017. Special teams’ main objective is to shift game momentum.

Whether it’s pinning your opponent back inside the 10-yard line or getting that key blocked field goal, the role of special teams is to be the spark plug that releases the electricity of the team by providing some high impact football, with each player having basically one chance to send the crowd wild. Pads tend to crack loudly on kickoff and kickoff returns.

It is either hit or get hit, and the 49ers now have the speed to see the lanes to the end zone when the 49ers are doing the hitting.

As always, keep your eyes wide open, 49er fans. Niners Live will be watching with you. #eyeswideopen and often imitated but never duplicated… Go Niners.

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All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, Pro Football Focus49ers.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author, Edward Erving new Staff Writer at Niners Live, Co-Author Jonathan Armstead new Staff Writer at Niners Live, Co-Author, Editor Niners Live.