Season preview positional analysis: ST

SFI will break down the 49ers by position leading up to Monday night's season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, with key questions facing each unit, strengths and weaknesses, key stats and facts, key arrivals and departures and the bottom line regarding whether the team is better or worse at the position compared to last season. Today: Special teams

Always looking to improve themselves in every area of the game, the 49ers also are wise enough to know when to leave well enough alone.

That's why there was no movement in the offseason with the team's specialists, where Joe Nedney is a reliable veteran place-kicker, Brian Jennings is one of the best in the business as a long-snapper and punter Andy Lee had a breakout season that was rewarded with a lucrative long-term contract.

The Niners are simply looking for more of the same this season from their specialty units, where special teams captain Keith Lewis is a terror on coverage teams and the 49ers have several young players selling out each Sunday in an attempt to make a name for themselves.

The only significant change here is at the coaching level, where NFL veteran Al Everest takes over as special teams coordinator from Larry Mac Duff, who left the 49ers in January to become assistant head coach/co-defensive coordinator at the University of Texas.


What does Everest bring to these units?
To begin with, 34 years of coaching experience, including 11 seasons as a NFL special teams coach. Everest was named NFL Special Teams Coach of the Year in 2002 with the New Orleans Saints, where his units also produced five NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors in 2004. Everest has fit in seamlessly with his new team, which already had a solid foundation established on these units.

Do the 49ers have the legs to go far with Nedney and Lee?
They sure do. Nedney made good on 29 of 35 field-goal attempts last season, which actually was something of a down season for him after he hit 26 of 28 and was named the 49ers' offensive MVP in his first season with the team in 2005. He's an underrated veteran who remains at the top of his game. Lee, however, was something of a revelation last year in his third season with the team, when he finished seventh in the NFL with a 44.8 average that was the best produced by a San Francisco punter in the past 41 years. That earned Lee a six-year, $7.1 million offer sheet from the Pittsburgh Steelers that the 49ers didn't hesitate to match.

Will the 49ers finally get some production from their punt-return unit?
That's the big question facing San Francisco's special teams in 2007. Veteran Maurice Hicks emerged as a fine kickoff return man last season, when his 25.1 average placed him among the NFC leaders and led the 49ers to a fourth-place finish in the NFL rankings. But rookie Brandon Williams produced only a 6.7 average as the primary punt returner, which wasn't nearly enough. The 49ers expect much better from Williams this year now that he has a year of NFL experience under his belt.

The bottom line: The 49ers don't figure to be much better in this area this season than they were in 2006, when they were pretty darn good in most phases. But being as good as last year should be plenty good enough, and if the punt return game improves, this could be one of the strongest areas on the team.


UNIT AT A GLANCE

Starters to begin season: K Joe Nedney, P Andy Lee, LS Brian Jennings, KR Maurice Hicks, PR Brandon Williams
Key new arrivals: None
Key departures: None
Special teams coordinator: Al Everest, first year with team, 11th year of NFL experience

Strengths: A sure-footed, reliable placekicker in Joe Nedney who has proven he can make the clutch kick. An excellent young punter in Andy Lee who is developing into one of the league's best. An elite long-snapper in Brian Jennings. Aggressive coverage units infused with young talent and led by big hitter Keith Lewis.

Weaknesses: The 49ers need to develop a better punt-return game, where rookie Brandon Williams did not get the job done last year. They also allowed opponents a 13.2-yard average on punt returns in 2006, which placed them last in the NFL.

Fact check: Joe Nedney executed three successful onside kicks that were recovered by the 49ers in 2006, making him 5-for-7 on onside kick attempts since joining the 49ers and 8-for-17 in his career.

Vital stat I: 24.1: Average yards on kickoff returns by the 49ers in 2006, which ranked fourth in the NFL and was the team's highest return average since San Francisco produced a 24.4 average in 1964.

Vital stat II: 116: Points scored in 2006 by kicker Joe Nedney, the eighth-highest total in team history.


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