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The 49ers are taking on a rebuilding project right now, attempting to restore what was a dominant special teams unit in 2011.
Since that spectacular campaign, the team has made renovations regarding the special teams unit, both willingly and unwillingly. San Francisco lost Blake Costanzo (Chicago) and Colin Jones (Carolina), while allowing Tavares Gooden and Larry Grant to walk this year.
The team’s production dropped significantly, as they struggled to both cover and return kicks. According to Football Outsiders, the 49ers special teams dropped 18 spots from 2011-2012, going from the No. 2 ranking to the No. 20 slot in a single year.
During the self-evaluation process, this must have stood out to the higher-ups in San Francisco. This offseason, the team spent significant capital on Brad Seely’s unit, signing a kicker and two gunners in free agency alone.
They also looked to supplement their current corps through the draft.
Darcel McBath, Anthony Dixon and C.J. Spillman highlight the key contributors from last season that will be returning. Although, this is a relatively thin group in contrast to the unit that they fielded only two seasons ago.
The offseason additions include, but are not exclusive to: Nick Moody (LB), Marcus Cooper (CB), Craig Dahl (S) and Dan Skuta (LB). These new additions will be apparent at OTAs as San Francisco looks to upgrade their punt and kickoff coverage teams.
As raw players at the pro level, there will be a good amount of time spent on technique. However, Dahl and Skuta bring top-notch special teams experience—one of which may finally replace the prevailing role left by Costanzo.
The 49ers also finally parted ways with return specialist Ted Ginn Jr., who has since signed with the Carolina Panthers.
In 2011, Ginn averaged a career-high 27.6 yards per kick return, and he had three returns for TDs in his three-year career with San Francisco (2 punts, 1 kickoff).
Two-thirds of those scores came in one game, which happened to be Jim Harbaugh’s first-ever regular season NFL game. Ginn hit two clutch home runs late in the game to put Seattle away in Week 1 of 2011. This earned Ginn Player of the Game honors and subsequently extended his tenure with the team.
This past season, however, the former top-10 pick from Ohio State lost his role on offense, and his special teams duties were also greatly reduced. Ginn finished with 587 all-purpose yards and four fumbles in 2012, opposed to his 1,554 all-purpose yards and zero fumbles a year before.
This declining play and diminished responsibility frustrated Ginn, as both he and the team realized that No. 19 was now obsolete.
This season, the 49ers are in the market for a new return maven.
That level of productivity may be replaced by a committee, but the team is no doubt looking for a front-man to emerge. In an attempt to get him more overall touches on game day, LaMichael James might be a favorite to lead the pack.
He also brings more experience than any of the incoming rookies or undrafted free-agents. In a short period of time in 2012, James looked good as a return specialist, bringing dynamism as an open-field runner.
He has the speed, quickness, vision and elusiveness that teams look for in return men. It was also clear that he grew more comfortable as the reps started to build up. James even made an impact play, setting up the game-winning touchdown against New England in Week 15.
He is another exciting player that is still very early in his development.
Dylan DeSimone is the San Francisco 49ers' lead columnist for Bleacher Report. A former NFL journalist and fantasy football writer for SB Nation, Niners Nation and SB Nation Bay Area, Dylan now writes for B/R.
To talk football with Dylan, follow him on Twitter @DeSimone80.