Niner Noise’s 2018 “Who Is?” series on San Francisco 49ers players takes a look at punter Bradley Pinion and while he’ll either improve or regress this season.
In fairness, it wasn’t exactly Pinion’s fault. Taken in Round 5 of the 2015 NFL Draft, Pinion was the first specialist taken that year. And it was a pretty shocking move by then-Niners general manager Trent Baalke.
Especially considering all the roster departures the team dealt with that season.
Pinion was pretty inconsistent his rookie year despite boasting one of the more powerful college legs out of Clemson. He averaged 43.6 yards per punt, but more than a few were shanked that season.
There was some moderate improvement in 2016, although an inept San Francisco offense between Pinion’s first two years meant he stayed busy. Those 100 punts in 2016 were the most in the NFL.
Pinion saw notably fewer punt attempts last season, largely due to head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense performing well in the second half of the year. And this could also explain why the punter’s average was down to 43.4 — the lowest in his career — which ranked 29th among qualifiers.
That doesn’t always count against his leg, as he’d be operating on shorter fields.
But should we expect more of the same this season? Let’s take a look.
Why Bradley Pinion Improves in 2018
Pinion is playing on the final year of his rookie contract. That should mean some added motivation heading into pending free agency, which never hurts.
And if we base Pinion’s efforts last year using Pro Football Focus‘ analysis, it’s pretty easy to assume he’s finally hit an upward stride. PFF gave Pinion a plus-22.0 mark for punting last year, which is a career high for him. The year before, he was at minus-7.2.
Last year’s ranking was also tied for 14th in the NFL, so it’s pretty safe to say Pinion’s early woes have disappeared.
Why He Regresses
Pinion still has a booming leg, although an improved 49ers offense might mean better field position but shorter areas in which to target his punts.
This could drive his average yards per punt down a bit, but that’s not overly crucial. What would be, though, is if Pinion somehow struggles with his coffin-corner kicks — pinning opponents’ returners deep in their own territory.
San Francisco 49ers
There have been times where Pinion struggles in this area. If that winds up being something of a trend this season, the 49ers may be inclined to explore other options in 2019.
Projected Impact with the 49ers in 2018
San Francisco brought aboard veteran punter Jeff Locke as competition during the offseason. Unless Pinion suffers an injury or completely bombs during training camp, Locke will be the odd man out and Pinion will resume his kickoff and punting duties in 2018.
One of the bigger hopes for Pinion is for the Niners to see less of him in the punting game and more on kickoffs. That means the offensive drives are ending in scoring, of course.
To gauge an accurate number of punt attempts, let’s look at the Los Angeles Rams’ Johnny Hekker, who had 65 total punts with a good L.A. offense in 2017.
If San Francisco’s own offense improves to the degree many think it will, Pinion won’t come anywhere close to the 75 punts he had a year ago. Getting down into the mid-60s range would be excellent.
That’s not going to be up to Pinion, though. Instead, how he influences opponents’ field positions will be the storyline to watch here.