Posted: 7:00 p.m. Sunday, June 2, 2013
By James Brady
We're coming up on the end of our NFC West position rankings. We've got wide receivers, defensive linemen and what we're looking at today: the specialists. Now, this isn't a ranking of the coverage units, but the specialists themselves. Rather than ramble on, we'll just jump right into it and hey, guess who happens to be at No. 1?
Had the 49ers stuck with David Akers, they could be pretty far down these rankings. Akers was very poor last season, with only Mason Crosby of the Green Bay Packers coming in with a lower field goal percentage. Fortunately, the 49ers went out and snagged one of the top-performing kickers last season in Phil Dawson.
Dawon nailed 93.5 percent of his field goals last season, including 7-for-7 from 50-plus yards. Andy Lee is one of the best punters in the NFL and led the NFC West with an average of 48.1 yards per punt, and managed 36 of them downed inside the 20.
As far as returners go, the punt return situation is something of a question mark, but there are some very capable players. LaMichael James should handle the kickoff duties well, average just over 29 yards per return in his limited role last season.
In short, the 49ers are on top due to having both the best kicker and best punter in the division, as well as having what looks to be competent returners.
Steven Hauschka is a pretty solid kicker, with his only three misses last year coming from 50-plus yards. That's his range, though -- he's not going to reliably hit them and that's never going to change -- so that's one limitation. Still, connecting on 88.9 percent of attempts is pretty solid.
Jon Ryan put up an average of 45.6 yards per punt, the worst in the division.
Percy Harvin is where things get interesting. Leon Washington was a solid kick returner last year, but he was pretty poor as a punt returner. Now Harvin is in town, and with a kick return average of about 35 yards and five kick return touchdowns in his career. He should hit the ground running in that aspect, and is the reasons the Seahawks are above the Rams.
If you look at Greg Zuerlein's numbers, they're somewhat underwhelming. At least, the fact that he had the third-worst field goal percentage in the league is pretty underwhelming. Then you look and see that the Rams attempted 13 field goals from 50-plus yards, and Zuerlein made seven of them. For someone named "Greg The Leg," sure you expect better than that, but I do think he's still the second-best kicker in the division.
When it comes to punting, Johnny Hekker had an average of 45.8 yards per punt, and that's kicking it 82 times. He's probably the third-best punter in the division.
Chris Givens was relatively unremarkable as a return man last year, but Tavon Austin is the x-factor. Most expect him to be an explosive addition to the return game, and he definitely should be.
Jay Feely had a respectable average last year, with an 89.3 field goal percentage. He did miss a couple shots prior to hitting that 50-yard mark, but there's few complaints about him at this point. Dave Zastudil has an average of 46.5 yards per punt, with a whopping 112 punts to his name. That's how poor the Cardinals were last year.
Patrick Peterson had an uncharacteristically poor year returning punts. He averaged just 8.4 yards per punt and had no touchdowns. To compare, Ted Ginn had 10.2 yards per return. Peterson needs to get it together next season. Tyrann Mathieu is listed here but he's far from guaranteed as a returner, but he should get a chance at it. Last season, William Powell returned kicks and had an average of 24.1 yards -- uninspiring.