When the 49ers re-signed punter Andy Lee last year to a six-year contract extension, the news flew under the radar.
To most fans, after all, punters are just part of the furniture on Sunday afternoons. They come in when the offense has failed to move the ball and are expected to automatically boot the ball away and give their teams some relief.
But for the Niners, Lee has been a rock-solid piece of their foundation since signing with the team as a sixth-round draft pick in 2004 out of the University of Pittsburgh, and this year has been no exception.
This week, in fact, Lee was honored as the NFC’s Special Teams Player of the Week for his punting in the Niners’ 31-17 victory over the Titans in Nashville. Three times in that game, Lee pinned the Titans inside their own 20-yard-line and on six punts he averaged a net 43.5 yards. The Titans tried to return two of them, getting a grand total of minus-1 yard.
This season, Lee ranks third in the NFL with a 48.3-yard average, and is No. 5 in net average at 42.4. He’s put 12 of his punts inside the opponents’ 20 and has given up just 6.4 yards per return, which ranks seventh in the league.
Now in his 10th season, Lee has a 46.1 career average and has had only three of 829 punts blocked.
This Sunday, he’ll be punting for the 49ers (5-2) vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars (0-7) in London.
While the average fan may take Lee for granted, the 49ers’ coaches and teammates do not. They know what they have in Lee.
“Sometimes it’s underestimated probably,” 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said last year of Lee’s prowess, at the time he signed his contract extension. “Andy is one of those guys that wins games for our football team. And it’s great to see guys that play all the games, play all 16, 17, 18 games and help our football team win games, get rewarded with a new contract.”
Lee, 31, is locked up for the 49ers all the way through the 2018 season and is the league’s third-highest-paid punter. Even after a decade as a pro, there’s no sign he’s slowing down.
Earlier this season in a 35-11 victory over the Rams in St. Louis, he averaged 54.7 yards on seven punts, with a net of 52.0. That performance caught the eye of analyst Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information.
“Putting Andy Lee in a dome is almost unfair,” wrote Simon. “Lee had seven punts against the Rams … five of which he boomed more than 50 yards. His 54.7 yard gross average was the best he’s had in any of the 46 regular-season games in which he’s punted at least seven times.”