A little more than a year ago, the 49ers surprised the media and fans by selecting punter Bradley Pinion in the fifth round of the draft when they already had longtime pro Andy Lee – a three-time Pro Bowler.
Then the Niners traded the reliable Lee to the Cleveland Browns for a seventh-round pick in the 2017 draft.
The move saved the 49ers some money, of course, but it could prove to be a solid football decision, too.
While Lee continued to perform at a high level for the Browns, ranking eighth in the NFL in average yards (46.7) and 15th in net yards (40.1), Pinion came on strong in his first season. The 6-foot-5 former Clemson standout was 27th in average yards (43.6) and 23rd in net yards (40.1), but he was tied for sixth in the NFL with 31 punts inside opponents’ 20-yard line. Also, Pinion took over kickoff duties from Phil Dawson and gave the 49ers a huge boost, putting more than 60 percent of his kicks into or out of the end zone for touchbacks. The year before, Dawson had just a 43.8 touchback percentage.
As the 49ers head toward training camp – veterans are due to report July 30 in Santa Clara – Pinion gives the team a solid, young punter/kickoff specialist with a strong leg. Plus, he and Dawson give the 49ers a strong 1-2 punch on special teams. Pinion has developed a strong relationship with the longtime pro, and is his holder for field goals and PATs. He says Dawson, 41, has helped him improve.
“I prepare 100 times better now than I did in college,” Pinion told a reporter at the end of 2015. “It’s things I took for granted in college, but Phil has taught me how important that part is in the game.”
Pinion had some big games as a rookie, including one against the Bears in December when he punted nine times, averaged 48.1 yards (one was a 62-yarder) and put three inside the Chicago 20.
“That’s what we know Bradley can do,” said former head coach Jim Tomsula. “He can change the field for you.”
Special teams coordinator Derius Swinton II says he’s already seen a big step forward by Pinion in his skill set this offseason. Today, he’s a much more capable directional punter.
“He’s gone from a guy that you saw last year, he was primarily going right to now he can put the ball anywhere on punts,” said Swinton. “Now more than just going and punting, he’s understanding situational football.”
As James Brady of SB Nation noted recently, Lee at this point in his career remains a better punter than Pinion. But Pinion’s rookie numbers are comparable to Lee’s, meaning he could follow the same upward path.
“The 22-year-old out of Clemson has plenty of room to grow, even if there were aspects of his game that didn’t impress as a rookie,” wrote Brady.