This week, I will finish my series of articles in which I rank the 49ers position-by-position against the other three teams in the NFC West. Which team has the best safeties? Which team has the best linebackers?
And so on.
You thought I’d skip special teams, didn’t you?
This series has reached its final stretch, and I could go straight to the defensive linemen and forget all about special teams. But where’s the fun in that?
Special teams is underrated and highly important. It produces what coaches call “hidden yardage.” Meaning if the punt returner gains 20 yards, those are two first downs the offense doesn’t have to pick up.
Punters, punt returners and kickers are as important as ever -- they constantly improve at their craft. Kickoff returners don’t matter as much anymore, though -- the shorter kickoffs essentially have eliminated kick returns from the NFL.
Now that we agree on the importance of special teams, let’s rank the ones in the NFC West from worst to best.
4. The Rams
Punter: Johnny Hekker
Punt returner: Greg Dortch
Kicker: Sam Sloman
Johnny Hekker is a great punter -- he averaged 47.4 yards per punt in 2019 -- third most in the NFL. And he completed two passes for 28 yards. Opposing teams always must respect the fake punt when they play the Rams, because Hekker can throw.
But the punt returner, Greg Dortch, is a second-year player who returned only four punts in 2019 for the Panthers. And the rest of the Rams special teams is no good. They gave up 8.26 yards per punt return in 2019 -- 12th most in the NFL. And they let their veteran kicker, Greg Zuerlein, sign with the Cowboys this offseason, and replaced him with a rookie, Sam Sloman.
The Rams cut corners at the most crucial positions.
3. The Seahawks
Punter: Michael Dickson
Punt returner: David Moore
Kicker: Jason Myers
David Moore is a capable returner, and Jason Myers is a decent kicker. Plus Dickson was an All Pro punter in 2018, and he’s only 24. His punts hang in the air for ages and give his teammates a chance to tackle the returner before he starts running. The Seahawks gave up just 6.26 yards per punt return last season -- 10th best in the NFL.
This is a solid unit.
2. The 49ers
Punter: Mitch Wishnowsky
Punt returner: Richie James Jr.
Kicker: Robbie Gould.
X-Factor: Raheem Mostert
Richie James Jr. averaged 8.0 yards per punt return last season -- seventh best in the league. He’s the best punt returner in the NFC West.
Robbie Gould used to be one of the 49ers’ best players, but he had a down season in 2019, and missed all four of his 50-plus-yard field-goal attempts -- a bad sign for a 37-year-old kicker. Has he begun to lose leg power, or did he simply need more offseason training? Remember, he held out of OTAs and minicamp to get a new contract extension.
Mitch Wishnowsky is similar to Dickson, but not as good. Wishnowsky also kicks extremely high punts, but his don’t travel as far, plus he’s already 28. Wishnowsky averaged 44.9 yards per punt in 2019 -- the least in the NFC West.
The 49ers’ best special teams player also is their best running back -- Raheem Mostert. He’s a gunner, meaning he covers punts, and is a big reason opponents averaged 5.7 yards per punt return against the 49ers last season -- seventh lowest in the league.
If Mostert becomes the 49ers’ starting running back, will he continue to play special teams? If not, the 49ers’ punt coverage won’t be as dominant next season, but it still should be good.
1. The Cardinals
Punter: Andy Lee
Punt returner: Pharoh Cooper
Kicker: Zane Gonzalez
Former 49ers punter Andy Lee is 37, and yet he still averaged 47.8 yards per punt last season -- second most in the NFL. Why did the 49ers ever get rid of him?
Pharoh Cooper is a good punt returner who gained 7.6 yards per return last season. And Zane Gonzalez is an excellent young kicker who made 88.6 percent of his field goals in 2019 -- eighth-best in the NFL. This offseason, Gonzalez was a restricted free agent, so the Cardinals gave him a second-round tender to make sure they kept him, because he’s the best kicker in the NFC West.
Watch out for the Cardinals next season. They have good players in hidden places.