The offseason free agent additions of linebacker Oren Burks, wide receiver/return specialist Ray-Ray McCloud and safety George Odum may not have drawn much attention from the team’s fans, but the 49ers coaches couldn’t be more excited about the fact that they could add all three of those players to the roster.
That’s because the 49ers went into the offseason with a desire to improve against special teams while adding depth at each of those positions, and Burks, McCloud and Odum were high-level targets for the 49ers in each area. And so far, every player has exceeded the expectations that surrounded them when brought on board.
49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and special teams coordinator Brian Schneider spoke during the team’s recent State of the Franchise event about the additions of Burks, McCloud and Odum, who each signed multi-year free agent contracts in March . The coaches explained that each position on offense and defense is rated separately by the special teams, and that Burks, McCloud and Odum were all rated highly in their respective positions in addition to what they can do in special teams. In fact, by position, Burks, McCloud and Odum were number one on Schneider’s wish list when it came to what players could offer on special teams, with Schneider saying he couldn’t remember a time when a team was able to do that was to land three top players on his board while meeting offensive and defensive requirements.
“I think I’ve been in the NFL for 14, 13 years and I’ve never had anything happen where everything works,” Schneider said.
Burks, 27, joined the 49ers on a two-year contract after spending four seasons with the Green Bay Packers. Burks has made an impression with the Packers on special teams, and he’s expected to do the same with the 49ers. But the 49ers also believe that Burks can do the job as linebacker if Fred Warner, Azeez Al-Shaair or Dre Greenlaw get injured (which each of them did to varying degrees last season).
“Everyone really likes our three appetizers,” Shanahan said. “Now we have a guy behind them that if one of those guys gets hurt, he can come in and play some good linebacker football. But even though he doesn’t, we think we have one of the best special teams players in the league.”
Odum, 28, signed a three-year contract with the 49ers after spending four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. He was a 2020 All-Pro selection as a special teamer and started seven games in safety for the Colts in 2021. Schneider said Burks and Odum have performed better than expected on and off the field since joining the 49ers.
“Both guys came in and what they did on the field is even better than the tape,” said Schneider. “But what excites me even more is the meeting rooms – how they prepare, what professionals they are. It was just amazing to have her in the room.”
But perhaps the most intriguing addition to the group is McCloud, who shone as a return specialist with the Pittsburgh Steelers the last two seasons before signing a two-year deal with the 49ers. The speedy McCloud has also caught 59 passes in two seasons with the Steelers, and Shanahan may have big plans for him on offense.
“I didn’t even look at his punt returns,” Shanahan said of his assessment of McCloud. “I was just looking at his receiver stuff and I wanted him as the receiver. Very. But you have to go out and pay for it. You look at the record, how you make your money, and it’s okay, wait, he’s your number one punt returner too?”
McCloud has impressed observers since joining the 49ers, including fellow player Jauan Jennings.
“Ray-Ray is electric,” Jennings said at the State of the Franchise event. “Ray-Ray had a great camp this year. He read the defense correctly. One of my favorite games is the Election Route and he did great at it. That’s just what I saw. As far as everything else, he’s fast and he’s got a feel. He has a feeling for him.
The 49ers gave McCloud a $4 million deal, Burks a $5 million deal, and Odum a $5.7 million deal, with approximately $7 million in guaranteed money for the three players. Shanahan says any player will give the 49ers bang for their buck, with their ability to fill multiple roles making a difference in the roster’s overall strength on game days.
“You want special teams players all the time,” Shanahan said. “The problem is, if you go out and draft a man just for special teams or pay in free agency, it’s going to hurt your offense and defense in the long run because you only have so many people, you only have 53 on the roster, you just come at 47, with extras at 48. But all these guys have a job to do, and when you’ve got three guys on your roster, special teams only, and you’ve got two injuries, now you’ve got guys out there that aren’t on the field should be who play the whole game on offense and defense and who are too tired to play against special teams to have someone who isn’t good on special teams and that just tears everything apart.”
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