Five special teams aces the San Francisco 49ers may consider in the draft
If your biggest remaining need in free agency is improving your special teams, then you likely have a stacked lineup.
That certainly appears to be the case with San Francisco.
While the losses of guard Laken Tomlinson and defensive tackle D.J. Jones to free agency will be felt, the 49ers still have young, recent draft picks in place to pick up the slack. Combined with smart, cost-effective additions like cornerback Charvarius Ward and DT Hassan Ridgeway, and the only remaining question is what the 49ers will do about the QB situation. (Here’s a hint: San Francisco could bring both back next season, according to the Press Democrat.)
Overall, 18 of 22 starters from last season’s team are expected to return.
In fact, at this point the 49ers are focused on finding players in free agency who could contribute on special teams, according to Jack Hammer of the Press Democrat. Linebacker Oren Burks, receiver Ray Ray McCloud and safety George Odum were all brought in to bolster a special teams unit that has ranked the bottom of the league the past two seasons. The team also re-signed exclusive rights LB Demetrius Flanigan-Fowles and safety Tarvarius Moore.
In terms of the draft, San Francisco is one of the rare teams that can truly get away with the “best-player-available” approach to the draft. Even then, it’s possible the 49ers only get one rookie starter out of the upcoming draft, thanks in part to a deep lineup. San Francisco doesn’t have a pick in the first round but has two in the third round.
Instead, the bulk of the 49ers’ draft picks are on Day 3, when the team has one pick in both the fourth, fifth and seventh rounds and three in the sixth round.
That’s where you can expect the team to mine for more special teams contributors. Ideally, these players will at least contribute on special teams, with the hopes that a few of them can push for starting roles before they reach the end of their respective rookie contracts.
Here are five special teams players who fit the bill:
Projected Round: Late second to third round; No. 62 in the Fanspeak-Jake Rigdon big board
The 5-foot-8, 174-pound senior will likely be limited to slot corner duties at the next level due to his size. Instead, expect Jones to see the field early and often due to his return talent, which NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein called “game changing.”
For his career, Jones returned 73 kickoffs for 2,075 yards (28.4 average) and 6 TDs. He also returned 63 punts for 881 yards (14.0 average) and 3 TDs.
Projected Round: Third round; Ranked No. 100
The 49ers likely won’t be in range of Alabama receiver Jameson Williams, who many analyst consider as the top special teams gunner in the upcoming draft. Williams is ranked No. 18 overall and isn’t expected to fall to the late second round (San Francisco does not have a first-round pick), despite coming off an ACL tear.
But Illinois safety Kerby Joseph would be a good consolation prize, as he’s also considered one of the top gunners in the upcoming draft. The 6-foot-1, 203-pound senior has been called “fearless” as a special teams player. From Pro Football Focus: “Joseph is a fantastic tackler and thrives as a gunner on special teams.”
Kerby Joseph grabbed his first career interception Saturday, but he says he also takes pride in his special teams plays.@srrichey asked about his mindset as a gunner, and Kerby put it pretty simply.
Projected Round: Fourth round; Ranked No. 133
The 6-foot, 204-pound senior might have turned heads nationally with his 4.31-second 40 at the Combine, but scouts were already well-aware of Jones’ special teams’ prowess.
Jones was the only player in the national to rack up more than 700 yards receiving (722), more than 500 yards in kickoff returns (506) and more than 200 yards in punt returns (272). Jones also led the SEC in punt return average (16) and was second in kickoff return average (28.1). His 2,851 career kickoff return yards led all active players in the FBS division.
Velus Jones Jr. is one of the most explosive return men in the country, here he almost houses the opening kick off, it was called back for holding however pic.twitter.com/hKzNfbURDg
— Tyler Browning (@DiabeticTyler) September 20, 2021
Punter Matt Araiza, San Diego State
Projected Round: Late fourth to late mid-fifth; ranked No. 177
There’s a reason why Matt Araiza was nicknamed “punt god.” The 6-foot-1, 200-pound junior averaged 49.8 yards on five punts as a sophomore, then averaged a shocking 51.2 yards per punt on 79 punts in his only full-year as a starter.
Eight of his punts went for 60-plus years in 2021, while two traveled at least 80 yards. And 62 of his 73 kickoffs went for touchbacks.
If the former soccer player is dinged for anything, it’s his kicking, as he kicked field goals for the Aztecs, too. He made 50-of-68 FGs for his career.
Just how good is Araiza? NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein says Araiza has the ability to be the highest-drafted punter since Todd Sauerbrun went 56th overall in 1995.”
— Rich Ohrnberger (@ohrnberger) March 6, 2022
Linebacker Vi Jones Jr., North Carolina State
Projected Round: Sixth- to seventh-round or priority free agent; Ranked No. 247
The former USC transfer only started nine games for North Carolina State, but he made a huge impact on special teams. Jones had an FBS-leading three blocked kicks in 2020 and blocked a punt, then blocked another kick this past season.
The 6-foot-3, 227-pound senior could eventually turn into a starter at linebacker, too, despite the lack of playing time. The son of former Cowboys linebacker Robert Jones, Vi Jones had 35 tackles, 5 TFLs, 3 sacks and 3 forced fumbles in 2020, then followed that up with 45 tackles, 8 TFLs and a team-high 6 sacks despite getting only about a third of the snaps.
Pro Football Network’s Tony Pauline called Jones an “explosive athlete who vits a variety of defensive schemes and comes with the potential to play three downs.”
From Pauline: “What he didn’t have was a consistent game, something he finally displayed this season.”
With NC State linebacker Vi Jones announcing he's going pro today, throwback to that time during the 2020 season that he blocked a late go-ahead field goal attempt in that wild win over Liberty. Pack likely loses that game if not for this block pic.twitter.com/bBDtSqXmRL
— Andrew Schnittker (@aschnitt53) January 16, 2022
What do you give the team that already has almost everything? Find out in Fanspeak’s latest mock draft for the San Francisco 49ers.
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