When the 49ers used a fifth-round pick to take punter Bradley Pinion of Clemson in the NFL draft this past spring, it was a signal the team was going to go in a new direction, away from longtime standout punter Andy Lee, a three-time Pro Bowler.
But has it been the right direction?
For now, maybe not.
Lee, now with the Cleveland Browns, is No. 2 in the NFL in punting average (50.5 yards per punt) and also second in net yardage (45.0). He’s put nine punts inside the 20-yard line and forced five fair catches.
Pinion is 22nd in the NFL in average (44.5) and 15th in net yardage (40.7). He’s put seven punts inside the 20 and forced three fair catches.
The one area Pinion leads Lee is in average yards per return, allowing 7.0 to Lee’s 7.3.
So, based on the stats, Lee – now in his 12th pro season – still has the edge on the 49ers’ rookie, though the 49ers believe Pinion has the potential to get much better in the long run. Lee, for instance, improved dramatically over the years. As a rookie with the 49ers in 2004, he averaged 41.6 yards with a net average of 35.3. By his fourth season, those numbers were up to 47.3 and 41.0.
Said 49ers special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey Jr. of Pinion this season: “He has tremendous upside. The hang time to distance ratio with this kid is very, very good. He’s got to get consistent directionally, but the sky’s the limit with this kid.”
Recently, McGaughey acknowledged Pinion has been inconsistent. Mixed in with some tremendous kicks have been some that SB Nation’s David Fucillo called “ugly ducks.”
McGaughey said Pinion’s up-and-down performance has been typical “growing pains” for a rookie.
Of course, the other consideration in the 49ers’ decision was money. Lee was due to make $2.05 million this season while Pinion will make $692,200, according to Bill Williamson of ESPN.com. That gave the 49ers some extra money to use on other roster spots (although at 1-4 heading into Sunday’s game against the Ravens, it could be argued that perhaps the team didn’t spend that savings wisely).
But keeping Pinion also helped the 49ers in another area. Pinion can also be used on kickoffs. With a stronger leg than place-kicker Phil Dawson, Pinion has given the 49ers a plus on kickoffs. In 20 kickoffs he’s allowed just four to be returned – one of the league’s lowest totals. His average kickoff length of 65.9 yards ranks tied for seventh in the league.
So for now, Lee remains the better punter. But Pinion is showing signs that the 49ers’ long-term expectations for him will be accurate.