49ers punter Mitch Wishnowsky must improve on 2019 campaign

Punter Mitch Wishnowsky #6 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Punter Mitch Wishnowsky #6 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) /

The 49ers using an NFL Draft pick on punter Mitch Wishnowsky in 2019 was a bit of a shock, and he still has to justify that by improving in 2020.

“So-so” might be the best phrase to use when describing San Francisco 49ers punter Mitch Wishnowsky‘s first year in the NFL.

Wishnowsky was a bit of a surprise addition to the Niners back in 2019 when general manager John Lynch shocked more than a handful of people by using a fourth-round pick on the former Utah punter in the 2019 NFL Draft, making him the first specialist taken off the board that year. Sure, San Francisco had to replace another punter it had drafted previously, Bradley Pinion, but using draft capital on a position most teams address in undrafted free agency was, well… provocative.

At any rate, Wishnowsky gained some notoriety during the preseason, thanks to his open-field tackle against the Denver Broncos:

That was pretty neat. But the 49ers didn’t bring Wishnowsky aboard to make these kinds of plays.

As far as his on-field efforts during the regular season were concerned, both as a kickoff specialist and punter, Wishnowsky was good but not necessarily great.

Mitch Wishnowsky Kicking & Punting Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/12/2020.

There are essentially three categories to judge the Australian-born specialist: kickoffs, punts and holding on long-snap placements. Non-film analysis of punters is always tough, as there are so many factors working into the equation. Average punt distances can be affected by field position, and the 49ers ranked third best in the league last year with their offense averaging out starting drives on their own 32.1-yard line. So Wishnowsky might not have been asked to come up with the booming kicks his predecessor, Pinion, was asked to do during his Niners tenure.

As it stood, though, Wishnowsky’s 44.9-yard average was tied for 22nd among all NFL qualifiers.

Pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard lines, however, is a vital element. In this category, Wishnowsky wasn’t particularly great, posting 27 such punts and ranking 20th in this statistic.

Out of his kickoffs, 51 percent were touchbacks — 26th in the league.

For those holds on field-goal tries and extra-point attempts, at least Wishnowsky didn’t bobble or fumble any snaps, although the Niners did have their share of kicking gaffes early in the season.

So, is there room for improvement here? You bet.

Why Mitch Wishnowsky improves with 49ers in 2020

There are two specific areas to watch for some Wishnowsky improvement this season. Getting his average up on punts would help, especially on situations where he could engineer some coffin-corner kicks. More of those boots inside the 20-yard line would certainly help San Francisco’s defense which averaged stands starting on opponents’ 28.4-yard lines — 16th best in the league.

An opening year in the pros could help with that factor, as he generates some familiarity with the league.

Getting more touchbacks on kickoffs would be good, too. San Francisco boasted a middle-of-the-pack coverage unit on special teams last year, and it’s not always easy to predict how this unit shakes out on a year-to-year basis given the constant turnover among backups and special teams contributors.

Those touchbacks on kickoffs would help ensure coverage units don’t experience too many problems in 2020.

Why Mitch Wishnowsky regresses with 49ers in 2020

One element needing to be addressed here is Wishnowsky’s age. He’s 28 years old, so this isn’t a case where one can expect him to grow into his body a bit more and add some thump to his kicking leg.

Suggesting regression as a real possibility is a bit premature, but the essential element here is Wishnowsky might simply be an average punter and kickoff specialist.

In that case, especially for a drafted specialist, no progression would be a sign of regression in of itself.

Projected role, impact for San Francisco

Wishnowsky’s role is solidified for this season and throughout the duration of his four-year rookie contract, of which he’s entering year two. Not much to break down there.

As noted earlier, the 49ers boasted one of the league’s best starting positions in 2019, thanks mostly to their defense not giving up yardage. But the Niners’ own defensive units started out their stands right around the middle of the pack. One of Wishnowsky’s key goals will be to increase this standing a bit by upping his efforts to boot both punts and kickoffs further, namely into touchbacks and landing balls inside the 20-yard line on punts.

Yet another factor would be keeping Wishnowsky’s punts free from blocks. In this category, and thanks to his upfront blockers, San Francisco suffered zero blocked punts over the course of 2019.

Wishnowsky has a role to play in that, too.

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Generally speaking, there’s room for improvement. But there’s a solid base for Wishnowsky to build upon. To justify the Niners drafting him, he’ll have to make those improvements happen.