Andy Lee's 2007 season was best ever by SF punter
SFI will break down the 49ers by position leading up to Sunday's season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, with keys to the season for each unit, player to watch, 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
During another tumultuous season in 2007, the 49ers could at least count on their old reliable - their special teams.
Once again, those units did more than hold up their end of the bargain while San Francisco's offense floundered and the defense struggled to stay effective while spending so much time on the field.
The 49ers will simply look to maintain the status quo in 2008 on these units, which feature an All-Pro punter, a steady kicker, one of the game's best long-snappers and several veterans who have made a name for themselves playing special teams.
And now added to the mix is return specialist Allen Rossum, who figures to be an upgrade in that role since he comes to the team as one of the most prolific kick returners in NFL history.
KEYS TO THE SEASON
More bang in the return game: Using multiple players, the 49ers averaged 8.6 yards on punt returns and 23.3 yards on kickoff returns as a team in 2007. Those aren't bad numbers, but the Niners would like to see them get better this year with Rossum handling both roles, and they also would like to see more long, explosive returns. Rossum displayed plenty of promise for that during the preseason, when he averaged 13.1 yards on punt returns and 26.9 yards on kickoff returns.
Andy Lee be Andy Lee: After one of the greatest seasons by a punter in NFL history, Andy Lee returns for his fifth NFL season as a first-team All-Pro with everybody wondering what he can possibly do to top his fabulous 2007 performance. Just staying in the neighborhood of matching it would be plenty good enough.
Covering up: San Francisco's kick coverage teams were some of the NFL's best last season, performing consistently throughout the year covering both punts and kickoffs. The 49ers had several coverage breakdowns during the preseason, so they need to get back to their formula for success by the time the real games begin.
The bottom line: The 49ers will be without two of their special teams studs of recent seasons - Maurice Hicks and Brandon Moore - and that could have an effect on the coverage units. But with Rossum in the fold, and his understudy Delanie Walker also displaying home-run ability as a returner, San Francisco's special teams as a whole could be even better than in 2007, when they were very, very good.
PLAYER TO WATCH/Andy Lee
Andy Lee and his aw-shucks personality never seemed to get too excited about the history he was making in 2007, but by the time the year was over there was no denying Lee's astonishing season was the best ever by a San Francisco punter and one of the best ever by any punter in NFL history. Lee was amazing throughout the year, leading the NFC in gross punting average (47.3 yards) and net punting average (41.0) while setting team records in both categories. Lee and Oakland's Shane Lechler became the first punters in NFL history to average more than 40 yards net per punt over the course of a season. Lee led the NFL with 105 punts and set a league record for punts downed inside the 20 with 42. He also had 49 punts of 50 yards or more - 16 more than any other NFL punter. The challenge in 2008 is to see if Lee can possibly improve on that performance, which consistently gave the 49ers an edge in the battle for field position.
UNIT AT A GLANCE
Starters: K Joe Nedney, P Andy Lee, LS Brian Jennings, RS Allen Rossum, H Andy Lee.
Key new arrivals: Allen Rossum
Key departures: Maurice Hicks, Michael Lewis
Special teams coordinator: Al Everest, second year with 49ers, 12th year of NFL experience
Strengths: An All-Pro punter in Andy Lee. A reliable veteran kicker in Joe Nedney. An outstanding veteran long-snapper in Brian Jennings. An accomplished veteran returner in Allen Rossum who still has something left in his wheels. Several top performers who have earned their NFL stripes on special teams.
Weaknesses: The 49ers did not have many explosive runbacks in the return game last year and are hoping the addition of Rossum will change that. The team is breaking in some new faces on this unit after losing a few mainstays from recent seasons.
Fact check: In 2007, Allen Rossum became the first player in NFL history to have recorded a kickoff return for a touchdown with four different teams when he brought back a kickoff all the way for a score against the 49ers in Week 3 while playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Vital stat I: 2: 49ers final NFL ranking in gross punting average in 2007.
Vital stat II: .894: Joe Nedney's field-goal efficiency percentage in 2007, which ranked fifth in the league among NFL kickers.