NFL success is predicated on a number of things, one of which is the presence of a strong special teams unit.
Special teams is a facet of the game that is consistently overlooked by outside observers; however, it is one that can often be the difference between victory and failure.
The San Francisco 49ers have recognised this and have been performed superbly on special teams for the last few years.
However, one area of special teams where San Francisco has struggled is the return game.
Indeed, the 49ers have not scored on a kick or punt return since the opening day of the 2011 season.
On that occasion, San Francisco benefited from an explosion by Ted Ginn Jr., who scored both kick and punt return touchdowns to guide the 49ers to a 33-17 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
But since then, San Francisco's return game has been the picture of mediocrity.
San Francisco has concerns at wide receiver and in the secondary, but it should be able to address both of those positions with the plethora of picks it possesses in the 2014 NFL draft.
Those needs are important and need to be addressed; however, the lack of firepower in the return game is arguably one of the factors preventing Jim Harbaugh's team from making the leap from perennial Super Bowl contender to NFL champion.
Here, I examine the reasons why kick returner must be a top priority for the 49ers in the offseason.
Lack of production
Let's start by looking at the numbers, which do not make for impressive reading for the 49ers.
San Francisco ranked at No. 25 in kick return yardage in 2013, totaling a mere 726 yards and averaging 22.7 yards per return
The 49ers did fare slightly better in terms of punt returning, where they ranked at No. 17 in the NFL but still only averaged 8.9 yards from their 35 attempts.
And yet for all those disappointing statistics, the 49ers actually ranked No. 2 in the NFL in average offensive starting field position, as per Football Outsiders, with only the Kansas City Chiefs ahead of them in that category.
However, that statistic could prove slightly misleading, especially when you consider that the 49ers possess a defense that is among the best in the league and a punter in Andy Lee who has consistently proved adept at pinning opposing offenses inside the 20-yard line.
Both of those factors undoubtedly had an impact on San Francisco's starting field position in the 2013 campaign, but some may argue that particular statistic shows that Harbaugh's team does not need to add a kick returner in the offseason.
Additionally, the fact that the division rival Seattle Seahawks were able to win the Super Bowl despite ranking at No. 27 in kick return yardage adds some considerable weight to that argument.
But perhaps a better way of assessing those numbers is to examine the potential possibilities that lie ahead for the 49ers should they choose to recruit a kick returner.
The presence of a dynamic return man could even improve San Francisco's average starting field position, providing an offense that found life difficult last season with the added bonus of a short field on more of its drives.
Furthermore, a legitimate scoring threat in the return game may take some of the pressure off a defense that has regularly kept San Francisco in contention in tight games.
And while Seattle's championship prospects were not damaged by the lack of kick return production, the 49ers can only benefit by adding talent in that area.
An array of options
The good news for the 49ers is that there are plenty of ways in which they can bolster the return game.
San Francisco could quite easily remedy its problems in free agency by bringing in longtime Chicago Bear Devin Hester, who is still available following his release from the team he helped to a Super Bowl in the 2006 season.
Hester is tied with ex-cornerback Deion Sanders for the most return touchdowns in NFL history after scoring 19 in his time in Chicago, as per Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune. However, the 49ers may struggle to be tempted by an ageing special teams specialist.
Instead, look for San Francisco to marry its need for a return man with its requirement for some added offensive impetus.
And there are plenty of players in the 2014 NFL draft who could prove to be extremely useful weapons both on offense and special teams.
The 49ers have so far failed to maximize the potential of speedy former Oregon running back LaMichael James, who was solid but uninspiring after taking over the return duties from the now-departed Kyle Williams midway through the season.
But another former Pac-12 player, Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, could well be the solution to the 49ers' return game woes.
Cooks measured in at 5'10" and 189 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, where he ran a 4.33 40-yard dash, and should be selected in the early rounds of the draft following a magnificent career with the Beavers, which saw him score 26 touchdowns through three seasons.
None of those scores came on special teams, but with the speed he has in his locker, there is no reason why Cooks could not be a valuable asset as a kick returner and on offense.
Further down the draft, Kent State running back Dri Archer and Pittsburg State wide receiver John Brown are each viable options.
Both of these players are considered to be slightly undersized for their respective positions, but raw acceleration is a valuable commodity in today's NFL and one that the 49ers could use in their offense and the return game.
The 49ers' frankly anaemic efforts in kick returning over recent years has been of great detriment to a team that is excellent in almost every other component of the game.
San Francisco does not necessarily need to use an early-round pick in order to rectify its issues in the return game.
Yet, with plenty of options as to how to address their deficiency in kick returning, it will be a great disappointment if the 49ers fail to do so in the offseason.
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