Roster breakdown: STs

SFI breaks down the 49ers' final 53-man roster by unit this week as the team closes in on Sunday's season opener against Atlanta. Today: Special teams

Kicker: Todd Peterson

Punter: Andy Lee

Punt returner: Arnaz Battle

Kick returners: Battle, Jimmy Williams

What's new: Lee, the team's sixth-round draft pick in April, takes over as the new punter and holder from the departed Bill LaFleur. Battle takes over from Williams as the team's lead returner on both punts and kickoffs.

What's to like: Peterson is a steady, reliable, experienced veteran kicker who's entering his 11th NFL season. Lee has solid potential to become a good punter in all aspects of the position. Battle is an intriguing prospect as a returner with his size and breakaway ability. He can make things happen in the open field. Williams - when his broken finger heals and he gets a cast off his right hand - and Cedrick Wilson also have proven to be breakaway threats as returners, and they may be called upon as the season progresses. The coverage units are blessed with loads of young talent, and those units continued the slow progress they displayed last year during the preseason.

What's to wonder about: Peterson doesn't has much leg strength, and that hurts the team on kickoffs and long field-goal attempts, which the Niners probably won't even try this season if the kick is much over 45 yards. Lee had a shaky preseason and probably will need some time to reach his potential. The Niners might have to live and die with Lee as their punter while he develops. Battle never has returned a punt in the NFL, yet he opens the season in the lead role after muffing a punt in the preseason finale against San Diego, a turnover the Chargers turned into a touchdown. Lee botched a perfect snap in that game which resulted in Peterson missing a PAT, bringing back horrible memories of LaFleur's problems as the holder last year.

Key preseason stat: Battle ranked second in the NFL with an average of 23.3 yards on his three punt returns, including a spectacular, tackle-breaking 61-yard burst for a touchdown.

The bottom line: Battle shows big promise as a returner, and the kicking game begins the season in much better shape with Peterson and Lee than it did last season with LaFleur and deposed kicker Jeff Chandler. The Niners should be better in 2004 at those two important positions. Of course, it will be difficult for them to be much worse at either position than they were last year.


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