The bad news for the 49ers? They placed a ho-hum 17th in Rick Gosselin's annual special teams rankings despite making special teams, especially the return game, a priority during the 2010 offseason. The good news is that the Browns, the team that incoming special teams coordinator Brad Seely coached last year, placed third on the list. Cleveland's special teams earned the top spot on Gosselin's list for the 2009 season while the 49ers ranked 21st that year.
Gosselin, who covers the NFL for the Dallas Morning News, is one of the most respected NFL reporters in the country. His special teams rankings are anticipated each February in part because his is one of the only ranking systems for special teams. (Keep an eye out for his mock draft in April). Gosselin ranks the teams based on 22 categories, which include returns, field goals, average starting position for opponents and punts inside the 20-yard line. New England placed first this year followed by Tennessee.
A year ago, boosting the 49ers return game was one of Mike Singletary's top three priorities along with improving the offensive line and adding more speed to the secondary. To that end, the team traded a fifth-round pick for Ted Ginn Jr. in mid April then used a sixth-round pick on Kyle Williams in the draft.
Ginn ended up being the primary kick and punt returner after Williams got hurt in the preseason. The 49ers ranked 30th overall in kick returns while averaging 19.5 yards a return. They fared much better in punt returns - San Francisco ranked 7th - thanks in large part to Ginn's 78-yard return for a touchdown in Week 16 against St. Louis.
The team also parted ways with some of its best coverage players in the 2010 offseason. Jeff Ulbrich retired, Marcus Hudson left via free agency and Michael Robinson was a surprise roster cut in early September, especially after Singletary said as many as four players would make the roster based on special teams ability. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman stepped into the void by leading the team with 26 special teams tackles. The 49ers held opponents to 22.2 yards per kick return and 8.9 yards on punt returns.
Ulbrich and Robinson ended up on the Seahawks, Ulbrich as an assistant special teams coach. Seattle tied for fourth place on Gosselin's list.
-- Matt Barrows