San Francisco puts a great deal of focus on its special teams and second-year special teams coordinator Al Everest is quick to point out why.
"They're not called special for just any reason," emphasized Everest. "They are special because of what events they represent in a game. They signify certain stages of a football game that create, establish, or lose momentum; and momentum swings affect the outcome of a game."
The 49ers were successful on special teams last year, ranking among the NFL's Top 5 in nearly every major category.
SPECIALISTS (4) New: P Ricky Schmitt (1st Year)
Returners: TE/LS Brian Jennings (9th Year), P Andy Lee (5th Year), K Joe Nedney (13th Year)
San Francisco has a trio of specialists in its primary three positions that have been in their current jobs with the team for a combined 15 seasons. The 49ers feature three of the best players at their position in punter Andy Lee and kicker Joe Nedney, as well as veteran long-snapper Brian Jennings.
Lee had a historic season in his fourth campaign with the 49ers in 2007, earning Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors after setting numerous team and NFL records. He put an NFL record 42 punts down inside the 20-yard line and also ranked second in the league in both average yards per punt (47.3) and net average (41.0) with the latter also the second best in league history.
Nedney continued to prove that he is one of the NFL's most accurate kickers in 2007. He was 17-of-19 on field goal tries and did not miss an attempt inside of 50 yards. Nedney was also one of eight NFL kickers to hit 90% (rounded up from 89.5%) or better of their field goals and one of 12 to be perfect on extra points (22-22).
Jennings has developed into one of the NFL's elite and most reliable long snappers, having never missed a game in his first eight seasons in the league while snapping to six different placekickers and four punters.
"Those three players bring a lot of talent, competitiveness and experience to the table," said Everest, who was named the NFL's Special Teams Coach of the Year by his peers in 2007. "We are fortunate to have those three outstanding skills people."
San Francisco has also bolstered its return game with the addition of Allen Rossum, who enters his 11th NFL season in 2008 ranked second all-time in career return yards (13,269) and kickoff return yards (10,520), as well as first among active players with 2,749 career punt return yards.
"We relooked at our kick return situation and decided to bring Allen in," offered Everest. "He has a knack and feel for returning kicks and punts, and I'm excited to see what he can do with our schemes. I think he'll like what we do and his skills will match that."
Nate Clements may also be used in the punt return game but most likely on a limited basis with all of the defensive snaps he takes. Last season, he stepped in and returned seven punts for 115 yards and a team-high 16.4 yard average.
Everest also pointed out the special teams play of Michael Robinson and Keith Lewis.
Robinson finished with a team-leading and career-high 27 special teams tackles in 2007, while Lewis also had a career-high in special teams tackles with 24 to rank second on the club.
"Every team has ring leaders for its special teams that are great players, make a lot of plays and bond the group together," said Everest. "Michael was our leading player in terms of production on special teams last year and Keith wasn't far behind."
Everest also emphasized that he'll have his eye out during training camp for players who can help the special teams and perhaps earn a spot on the roster.
"There always seems to be a guy that comes out of nowhere," stated Everest. "They keep competing and learning; they keep plugging along. The next thing you know they're doing better than the other guy."