A look at my all-NFC West picks for the 2011 season, concluding with the special teams:
This might go down as the most memorable NFC West season on special teams since divisional realignment. Records fell and players made dynamic, game-changing plays from beginning to end. The San Francisco 49ers led the NFL in field position. They succeeded on a fake field goal and a surprise onside kick. Only a replay challenge could stop the 49ers from executing another fake field goal.
The 49ers' Andy Lee was an easy choice at punter. He set an NFL record since at least 1976 for net average, according to Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information. Simon named Lee his punter of the year -- yes, he tracks such things -- and pointed out a few superlatives. Lee posted a 59.6-yard average in Week 1, third-best in league history. One of his final punts, a 64-yarder at St. Louis, was downed at the 1. Lee led the league in gross and net punting. Lee finished first when Simon tested formulas weighting various averages with inside-the-20 percentages, fair catches and touchbacks, plus punts returned for touchdowns.
Lee's teammate, David Akers, was an easy choice at kicker. Akers set a league record for most field goals made in a season (44) and most kicking points (166). He was special-teams player of the month for December after scoring a league-high 58 points. Akers even threw a touchdown pass on a fake field goal in Week 17. His point total broke Jerry Rice's single-season franchise scoring record.
Arizona's Patrick Peterson beat out the 49ers' Ted Ginn Jr. as the return specialist, although I should probably break out separate categories for kickoffs and punts. I decided to stick with the format we've used in past seasons. Peterson scored four touchdowns on punt returns. The Cardinals went from 27th to second in punt return average. Ginn scored twice on returns in the season opener and played a key role in the 49ers' field-position dominance. Peterson's 99-yard return touchdown against St. Louis in overtime was the second-longest in league history.
Seattle's Red Bryant and Arizona's Calais Campbell deserve mention for blocking field-goal tries (Peterson blocked two). Bryant blocked two field-goal attempts and an extra-point attempt at Cleveland. Campbell blocked three field-goal tries for the Cardinals, including a critical one against St. Louis.
Several special-teams coverage players drew my attention. Seattle's Heath Farwell led the NFL in special-teams tackles (counting assists) despite playing only 11 games. He blocked a 49ers punt in Week 16, helping Seattle take a 17-16 lead in the final minutes. The 49ers' Blake Costanzo and C.J. Spillman made plays, as did the Cardinals' LaRod Stephens-Howling and O'Brien Schofield. I went with Farwell and Spillman. We could not go wrong with any of these guys. They all deserve recognition.
I don't have a category for a long-snapper, but if I did, it would be named after the 49ers' Brian Jennings. He is one of the best ever, according to guys I know who can tell the difference between a good snapper and a great one.
The chart breaks down all-division choices from 2008 -10, plus this season.