Niners Live goes in-depth and talks about all facets of a football team’s success. Today we bring you: Why special teams will need to deliver in 2017, part one: runner and gunners.
On a team where the offense and defense will be undergoing an extreme makeover, 49ers Special Teams Coordinator Richard Hightower is going to need his units playing at maximum effectiveness to offset the learning curve of the team’s two primary units. This two-part series will cover these units and a few of the players who look to make their mark, and in some cases, their paychecks, on these units.
Early signings in the John Lynch Era demonstrate that special teams are a priority. Logan Paulsen, Brock Coyle, Don Jones, and Dekoda Watson all came to the 49ers in the first week of Free Agency, all were brought in because of their special teams value. Also in that haul was kicker Robbie Gould. Even the re-signing of last year’s leading receiver, Jeremy Kerley, has special teams written on it. Kerley was the team’s primary punt return man last season. With the signings of Aldrick Robinson, Marquise Goodwin, and Pierre Garcon, Kerley is going to need his return skills to help secure his roster spot. The team also drafted wide receiver Trent Taylor who, like Kerley, is looking to make his mark in the slot on offense, but will need to use punt return as a way onto the roster. Bruce Ellington, returning from Injured Reserve, is also in the same category as Kerley and Taylor. Even though Ellington is the biggest, strongest, and fastest of the three, an unimpressive injury history is working against him.
Niners Live Note: On April 5, 2017, Niners Live brought you “Fearless Predictions: 49ers Will Have a Top Five Special Teams”. Since then, Lynch has increased his commitment to special teams units.
In addition to these players, Lynch also signed, either right before or after the draft, veteran linebacker Jayson DiManche, drafted defensive back Adrian Colbert in the seventh round, signed undrafted free agent linebacker Donavin Newsom, undrafted defensive back Lorenzo Jerome, and undrafted safety Chanceller James, all who will be looking to throw their hats in the battle for special teams roles to make the roster.
Where You Start Determines Where You Finish:
While offense and defense require a deeper understanding of scheme and technique, Special Teams is the most basic of all the football units. Kicking, catching, blocking, and tackling, just the basics and fundamentals. This is where the 49ers will need to excel to help mitigate the learning curve the offense and defense are bound to go through with a new scheme and players on both sides of the ball. Pinning opposing offenses deep in their own territory, giving the defense a long field to defend, or taking a punt back for a touchdown when the offense is struggling to score are all necessary for a team going through so much change.
Starting field position is the area the special teams will help the offense and defensive units the most. Pinning a team deep can prevent a team from converting drives into scoring opportunities. And this goes for the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Last season the 49ers started, on average, at the 25-yard line. While the opponent began, on average, at the 31. These six yards turned into an average of almost one point per drive difference that the team gave up last season, as the 49ers averaged 1.59 points per game on offense and gave up 2.41 yards per game on defense. And these are yards the specials team play a big role in on the offensive and defensive starting lines of scrimmage.
Incumbent punt returner Jeremy Kerley received an extension this off-season by the Lynch Regime. To earn that money, shouldn’t he also need to affect the return game? He carries a career average of 9.1 yards per return, with 7.5 last season. Of his 21 returns, three went at least 20 yards, with a long of 26 yards. He also had three fumbles in 2016. The last time he took one back for a touchdown was in 2012 for the New York Jets. Kerley will be given the first shot to make an impact, but will face stiff competition to keep the job in the form of Bruce Ellington, who is coming off a 2016 season lost to injury, and Trent Taylor who was drafted in the sixth round out of Louisiana Tech during the 2016 draft.
Kerley came to the 49ers to fill the void that opened when Bruce Ellington became injured before the start of the 2016 season, who was the front-runner to be the punt returner and slot receiver roles that Kerley assumed on his arrival. Ellington has more speed and size than either Kerley or Taylor, but he also has more time spent on the injured list. In 2015, Ellington played in 13 games with 19 punt returns averaging 7.2 yards per return. Ellington has yet to find the end zone in the return game during his career. Questions about his work ethic by past coaching staffs have been linked to injuries sustained in his young career as recently discussed on Niners Live. Turning around that perception is going to be key, as K.D. Cannon can attest.
Taylor ranked 14th nationally, and was first in Conference USA with a 10.5 yard per punt return. His 17 returns in 2016 were the 47th most attempts in the country. As a sophomore, Taylor ranked 39th on 22 attempts averaging 7.6 yards per return. It may be due to his 4.65 speed that in his college career none of his attempts found their way into the end zone.
Last season kick returner, JaCorey Shepherd was not on the roster, leaving this position totally up for grabs. Bruce Ellington should be looking at this as his position, but as stated earlier, he is going to have to work to show he is not injury prone and that he will put in the work to maximize his talents. The last time he was the teams’ primary return man was in 2014 and 2015 when he averaged 25.6 yards per return during both years.
If Ellington brings the most experience to the position, Marquise Goodwin brings the most speed. An Olympic long jumper, Goodwin posted a 4.27 40 yard dash during his NFL Combine experience in 2011. Since his rookie season when he returned 16 kicks for an average 21.9 per return, Goodwin has only returned six kicks in the past three years averaging 19.5 yards on those returns. Penciled in to take the starting receiver role opposite Pierre Garcon, Goodwin might be deemed too valuable to risk on special teams in a consistent role.
Draft day trade pickup Kapri Bibbs is another player who can use kick returns to make his way onto the roster. With Carlos Hyde and fourth round pick Joe Williams ahead of Bibbs on the running back depth chart, a job as the team’s kick returner can be the ticket for Bibbs to dress on Sundays as a part of the 46 man game day roster. In 12 games last year he got 4 opportunities to return kickoffs and he averaged 19.8 yards per return in 2016.
Gunning For Gunners:
Position battles will be found daily on the practice fields during offensive and defensive periods this summer in Santa Clara. Roster spots will be made during the special teams portion of practices. And none will be more highly contested than the battles for roles on the special teams coverage units, namely the gunner positions on punt coverage. Speed and aggressiveness are two main qualities required to be a gunner at any level of football. And this year Lynch has made sure the competition for this job will be fast and furious.
Don Jones, an early signing this off season, has shown since he was a rookie that he can excel in this role, which is one of the reasons he was signed in the early waves of free agency.
In this video courtesy of NFL.com, Jones can be seen fighting off two blockers to get down field and make the powerful tackle that forces the fumble from Atlanta Falcons Punt Returner Harry Douglas. Jones will be counted on to push the competition this summer.
Last season with the Huston Texans, he recorded 11 special teams tackles in nine games. He was drafted by Miami in 2013. During his five years in the league he split time with the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots his second year, New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns his third year, and Cleveland and Houston last season, with the second team each year getting the ‘Special Teams Standout” version of Jones. Let’s just hope the competition brings out the fight in him early in the season, and not for the next team. Because competition is definitely what Lynch has brought in.
NINERS LIVE NOTE: On March 14, 2017, Niners Live opened your eyes when we went deep on Don Jones in, “Why the Signing of Don Jones and Brock Coyle Will Pay Underrated Dividends”.
Adrian Colbert, who is currently running with the third team defense, is one of the young guns looking to lock down a roster spot, and a job as the gunner is going to be one of the main ways he can do that. After drafting him Lynch said, “We believe he is going to be one heck of a special teams player, as well. We’ve seen it on film.” When asked during OTA’s what his strengths were Colbert responded by saying, “I’m a smart player. I like to tackle). I’m a real physical player. And I am really fast.” All traits that will make him effective and valuable in keeping offenses starting deep in their own territory. Colbert posted a forty time of 4.40 during his pro day at Miami. Unquestioned as a big hitter, Mike Mayock tweeted that Colbert’s big hits jumped off the screen as Mayock was evaluating the other two Miami cornerbacks this past draft season. Needing time to develop at corner, after playing only one season at the position after switching to the position from playing safety for the Texas Longhorns, Colbert will need to excel at gunner to find a job this season.
Last season Will Redmond was sidelined while recovering from a knee injury. While in a battle for a role as the team’s nickel back, Redmond can bolster his case by showing his worth on special teams. One of the faster cornerbacks on the team, he posted a 4.38 40 yard time while playing at Mississippi State. In limited reps last preseason, Redmond showed the aggressiveness needed to thrive as a gunner.
Bruce Ellington and Don Jones bring the most experience and production to the returner and gunner positions. Niners Live footnotes: Don’t sleep on the 249th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Prince Charles Iworah who clock in at; 4.32-second 40-yard dash and 38.5-inch vertical jump at Western Kentucky’s pro day as a potential gunner in the mix as well.
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 Focus, 49ers.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author, Edward Erving Staff Writer at Niners Live, Co-Author, Editor Niners Live.