49ers free agent signings might’ve been made with new kickoff rule in mind

The 49ers might have had an inkling the NFL’s new kickoff rule was going to pass. While San Francisco voted against it, the adoption of the new rule Tuesday at the NFL’s annual league meetings brings into focus the impetus behind a handful  of the 49ers’ offseason additions.

Part of San Francisco’s signings in the first couple free agency waves included cornerbacks Chase Lucas and Isaac Yiadom, as well as linebacker Ezekiel Turner. The 49ers also re-signed LB Demetrius Flanningan-Fowles and extended safety George Odum.

The common thread between these players is that all of them have been strong special teams contributors throughout their careers. Even Yiadom, who is coming off his best season as a defender, played a ton of special teams last season for the Saints.

With kick returns suddenly a more prominent aspect of each game, the 49ers needed to shore up a kick coverage unit that struggled enough last season that it could easily be chalked up as a major problem in a world where there are returns on virtually every kick instead of just one or two per game. By bolstering their roster with special teams aces, they could be giving themselves a major advantage under the NFL’s new special teams-forward rule.

It also makes sense that the 49ers don’t have their return man just yet. San Francisco could just be waiting until the comp pick formula is no longer in play before signing a return specialist, but they might also be viewing a world where some of their playmakers are more useful on kickoffs than they’d been in the past.

With kick coverage units unable to run to cover the kick until the returner has the ball in their hands, it could set up a world where a player like Deebo Samuel or Brandon Aiyuk become more dangerous as returners without as much injury risk as there’d been before. Perhaps the 49ers will replace Ray-Ray McCloud and roll with that player as their return man. They could also turn to second-year WR Ronnie Bell, who handled kickoffs at various points last season. However, the door is open for a more proven, electric playmaker to have the ball in their hands on kickoffs with a chance to get behind blockers to make a play.

How the 49ers choose to operate on returns will be a fascinating aspect of the leadup to the 2024 season. For now though it appears they’re gearing up their roster to be strong in kick coverage, and they could be angling toward doing the same for kick returns to try and take an early advantage of a league still figuring out how to play with the new rules.

Story originally appeared on Niners Wire