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49ers 2018 Positional Breakdown: Special Teams

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San Francisco 49ers special teams
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Over the offseason, we break down each of the San Francisco 49ers’ position groups for the upcoming 2018 NFL season. In this edition, we break down the specialists from the Niners’ special teams unit.

This is the sixth edition of our 49ers 2018 offseason positional breakdowns. Check out the position group breakdowns from the offensive side of the ball here:
Running Back
Quarterback
Wide Receiver
Tight End
Offensive Line

In this positional breakdown, we’ll look at each of the San Francisco 49ers’ specialists who exclusively play special teams.

In 2017, the 49ers’ special teams unit ranked 11th in the NFL, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA, and was highlighted by an excellent kicking game that the 49ers’ offense relied on for much of the season. Luckily for San Francisco, each of the team’s three specialists remain under contract in 2018.

We’ll start with a player who played a pivotal role in a number of the San Francisco 49ers’ victories in 2017:

K Robbie Gould

Last offseason, the 49ers signed free-agent kicker Robbie Gould to a two-year contract to replace 42-year-old Phil Dawson, who signed with the Arizona Cardinals.

Gould had a career year in 2017, converting all but two of his 41 field goal attempts. Gould’s 39 field goals were the third most by a kicker in a single season in the history of the NFL. The 49ers hope to score more touchdowns —and kick less field goals — in 2018, but will still count on Gould to convert crucial game-winning kicks, like he did on multiple occasions in 2017.

Gould turns 36 during the upcoming season, but should receive an extension if he kicks as accurately in 2018 as he did in 2017. Look for the 49ers to sign another kicker prior to the preseason in order to allow Gould to remain fresh for Week 1 of the regular season.

P Bradley Pinion

The upcoming season will determine punter Bradley Pinion‘s future in San Francisco, as 2018 is the final year of his rookie contract. Pinion has ranked near the bottom of the league in yards per punt in each of his three seasons, but he saw a sharp increase in net yards per punt in 2017, when he ranked 15th in the NFL.

Pro Football Focus also noted Pinion’s improvement last season, ranking him 14th among punters, after ranking him near the bottom of the NFL the previous two seasons.

In addition to his improvement as a punter, Pinion particularly excelled on kickoffs last year. Per PFF, only 16.5 percent of Pinion’s kickoffs were returned in 2017, which was the second-lowest percentage in the league.

P Jeff Locke

In March, the 49ers signed punter Jeff Locke — a five-year veteran — to a one-year contract. Locke spent his first four seasons punting for the Minnesota Vikings before playing five games for the Detroit Lions in 2017.

It’s unclear whether the 49ers signed Locke to truly compete for Pinion’s roster spot, or to merely keep Pinion fresh during the preseason. Like Pinion, Locke is also a kickoff specialist and a holder on field goals and extra points.

The 49ers’ brass may have chosen to sign Locke over other available punters because he punts and kicks with this left foot, which will provide the 49ers’ young returners with experience catching and returning left-footed punts and kickoffs.

LS Kyle Nelson

In 2012, the 49ers gave Kyle Nelson an opportunity to take the team’s long snapper job from Brian Jennings, but the veteran was able to beat out the newcomer. The 49ers signed Nelson again in 2013, but released him before he had the opportunity to compete with Jennings again. When the Niners brought Nelson in a third time in 2014, he won the roster spot over the 49ers’ incumbent long snapper Kevin McDermott, who took the job from Jennings the previous year.

The 49ers liked what they saw from Nelson during the 2014 season, and signed him to a four-year deal. That contract ends this season, with Nelson scheduled to make nearly $1.2 million over the course of the year.

While Nelson has recorded just three tackles over his four years in San Francisco — along with one fumble recovery last season — he’s a consistent snapper who lacks any competition on the current roster. Nelson, who turns 32 later this year, could see another contract with the 49ers if he maintains his consistency throughout the 2018 season.

Chris Wilson is the Lead Writer for Locked on 49ers - part of the Locked On Podcast Network. You may have seen Chris Wilson’s work on NFL game theory, statistical analysis and film breakdowns at FanSided, Niner Noise, 49ers Webzone, ClutchPoints, Insidethe49 and others. Follow Chris Wilson on Twitter @cgawilson.

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