The San Francisco 49ers are set for training camp to begin at the end of the month. But before the team can defend its NFC West division crown this upcoming season, let's take a look at the depth of each position group on the roster as they prepare for camp. Specialists close our series out. OVERVIEW
How much of an impact did the 49ers special teams units have in 2011? For one, the group picked up a theme song (Future's "Tony Montana"), broke two major NFL records (most made field goals in a season and lowest single-season net punting average) and had three representatives named to the 2012 Pro Bowl (Andy Lee, David Akers and Brian Jennings). The respected veterans enter training camp as one of the league's top specialist trios in the league. They'll be together for some time, too. Lee signed a six-year contract extension that'll keep the three-time Pro Bowler in a 49ers uniform through the 2018 season. The timing of the extension proved how much the talented punter was valued in San Francisco. And while the team's offseason program wasn't as strenuous on tenured specialists with Pro Bowl pedigrees, the trio found ways to improve within their respective crafts. For Jennings, the offseason was a time to focus on refining his snapping mechanics in time for his 13th season in San Francisco. Akers, too, worked on his mechanics and did so while moonlighting as a youth soccer coach. Last season was certainly a whirlwind of an experience for the longtime Philadelphia Eagles kicker, who signed with the 49ers prior to training camp with the intent of winning his first Super Bowl. Akers connected on 44 field goals, a league record, and converted at least one made field goal in every regular season and postseason contest. Both Lee and Akers owe a great deal of their success to the steady snaps provided by Jennings, the longest tenured player on the 49ers roster. The trio also relied heavily on the team's fast and physical coverage units which were the only group in the NFL to not allow a single return touchdown all season. In the return game, Ted Ginn Jr. figures to be one of the top choices for special teams coordinator Brad Seely. The team utilized several young athletes (Kyle Williams, Perrish Cox, Kendall Hunter, Chris Culliver, to name a few) at both kick returner and punt returner during the team's offseason program.
RETURNERS: Andy Lee (ninth season), David Akers, (14th season, second in San Francisco), Brian Jennings (13th season). NEWCOMERS: Kyle Nelson (first season) and Giorgio Tavecchio (undrafted, California).
The 49ers brought in Nelson and Tavecchio to develop depth at their respective positions and to help split up the training camp reps at the specialist positions. However, the pair of understudies will likely gain valuable playing experience in the preseason. Nelson has also practiced with the tight ends this offseason, providing the 49ers with depth at multiple positions.
The combination of Lee's booming right leg and the league's top coverage unit resulted in the 49ers posting a 44.0 net punting average last season, the best single-season mark in league history.
"Sometimes it's underestimated probably, to be honest with you. Andy is one of those guys that wins games for our football team. And it's great to see guys that play all the games, play all 16, 17, 18 games and help our football team win games, get rewarded with a new contract. So, we're all really excited and happy for Andy about that. And selfishly for ourselves we're happy and excited that Andy Lee will be with us for the next six years."
-Coach Jim Harbaugh on Andy Lee's underpublicized talent.