Niner Noise continues its “Who Is?” series on 2017 San Francisco 49ers players. And in this episode, we look at punter Bradley Pinion and what to expect this season.
Most San Francisco 49ers fans probably wish former general manager Trent Baalke elected not to pick former Clemson punter Bradley Pinion in Round 5 of 2015 NFL Draft — a move that subsequently resulted in the trade of Pro Bowler Andy Lee to the Cleveland Browns that offseason.
After all, Pinion was the first specialist taken in the draft that year. The Niners likely could have waited.
And in his rookie season, Pinion averaged 43.6 yards per punt — 27th in the NFL. Lee, on the other hand, ranked ninth that year with an average of 46.7 yards per punt.
San Francisco 49ers
Sure, the change made sense, financially. But with two full seasons now under Pinion’s belt, what should San Francisco expect moving forward? Is Pinion finally going to justify an actual draft selection?
Let’s take a deeper look.
Why He’ll Improve
On one hand, Pinion can take comfort knowing he garnered plenty of experience the last two years.
It isn’t as if San Francisco’s offense was dynamic enough to keep him off the field.
Last year, Pinion led the entire NFL with 100 punts, averaging 44.0 yards per punt in the process. This average still ranked only 25th in the league, although it’s important to note the average does not account for field position — shorter fields mean shorter punts.
In Week 13 last year, Football Outsiders broke down how Pinion actually ranked dead last in punts within opponents’ 20-yard lines (26 percent).
Again, part of this is due to the fact San Francisco’s 2016 offense was pretty abysmal, averaging only 5.18 plays per offensive drive — 30th in the NFL. Needless to say, the field was pretty long for Pinion.
One could hope the 49ers offense will be more effective under head coach Kyle Shanahan this year. This should give Pinion more chances to pin opponents deep within their own territory.
Why He’ll Regress
Entering year three of his pro career, Pinion certainly hasn’t done anything to showcase being the rightful heir to Lee’s standout career in San Francisco.
The booming leg, once so touted in college, surely hasn’t been a major factor. And any 49ers fan who watched games over the last two seasons can recall shanks and poor punts on a regular basis.
These were moderately addressed to an extent last year, as Pinion did see a slight increase in net average. Yet a 0.4 net-yard increase isn’t exactly a huge improvement here.
At this point, we can probably assume Pinion stays around the same level that he was last year — an OK specialist who could just as easily struggle with punt placement and distance in 2017 as in prior seasons.
What to Expect in 2017
Pinion is the last of the 49ers worries heading into this season. Sure, he’s probably reaching the point where San Francisco’s top brass might consider a replacement at some point down the road.
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But with a rookie contract set to expire after 2018, it’s a problem the Niners aren’t likely to address for a while.
What San Francisco is hoping for is a gradual improvement and consistency in the aforementioned areas. A notable increase in net yards would be nice, as would be a spike in punts within opponents’ 20-yard lines.
Neither of these two focal points were Pinion’s strengths last season.
One can only hope the increased action last year leads to better production this season, resulting in stronger special teams play in Santa Clara.