Special teams holds key for final roster spots

Special teams holds key for final roster spots
June 4, 2013, 9:00 am
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Special teams coach Brad Seely and head coach Jim Harbaugh will have some difficult roster decisions to make come August. (USA TODAY IMAGES)

Less than two weeks after 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh singled out an emerging undrafted rookie, that player was waived to make room for more competition.

Raymond Ventrone, the latest 49ers acquisition, signed Monday with the 49ers to challenge for a spot as a core special-teams player. He is listed as a safety, but he played a combined 23 snaps on defense the past two seasons with the Cleveland Browns. He is not coming to the 49ers as a potential starter on defense.

Ventrone, 30, comes to the 49ers to compete with fellow safeties C.J. Spillman, Darcel McBath and others for a role on special teams. Ventrone was on the field for nearly 60 percent of the Browns' special-teams plays, and he has a history with 49ers special-teams coordinator Brad Seely.

The 49ers released tight end/fullback Jason Schepler to make room for Ventrone. On May 24 in an interview on 95.7 The Game, Harbaugh cited Schepler as a player whose tough-blocking and attitude put him on the radar screen.

But shortly after the 49ers signed Eric Mangini as an offensive consultant, the club added one of his former players to increase the competition within the roster. Schepler was out; Ventrone was in.

Typically, the 49ers hold the final three to five roster spots open for players with special-teams value. Of the eight players who played more than half of the 49ers' special-teams plays from last season, only starting fullback Bruce Miller is considered a lock to make the team.

Spillman has been the best special-teams player on the roster for a while, and his job should be secure. McBath, Anthony Dixon, Demarcus Dobbs and Tramaine Brock will compete for spots. Larry Grant and Tavares Gooden remain unsigned as a free agents.

It might not be a real sexy competition to watch, but Ventrone enters the mix to create even more options for those final, coveted roster spots. Teams must operate with a maximum of 90 players through the first cuts of training camp. Eventually, 47 (oops) 37 of the 90 players currently under contract will be released.

Kicker Phil Dawson and punter Andy Lee are among the locks to make the team. Interestingly, the 49ers brought in a lot of competition for long-snapper Brian Jennings, who has been considered one of the best in the business.

Not only did the 49ers sign undrafted rookie Kevin McDermott, whom Harbaugh called the best college long-snapper, the team also claimed Kyle Nelson off waivers from the San Diego Chargers. Nelson was with the 49ers last offseason, and they must have liked what they saw.

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