The San Francisco 49ers stunned most of us during the draft when they selected punter Bradley Pinion in the fifth round. Andy Lee will not be the 49ers punter forever, but at 32, it seemed unlikely that he would be replaced. Before the draft, Trent Baalke even indicated it was unlikely the team would address kicker or punter heading into 2015. Of course, the key was "unlikely" because that quickly became more nine days ago.
In retrospect, it is not entirely shocking that the team would be looking for a replacement. It is surprising they would do so in the fifth round of the draft, but financially, it makes some sense. Lee is due to have a cap hit of $2,550,000 this year, $3,333,000 in 2016, $3,433,000 in 2017 and $4,134,000 in 2018. Pinion is due a 2015 cap hit of approximately $477,215, and the following three years would be approximately $567,215, $657,215 and $747,215.
Lee's dead money would leave the 49ers saving $1.5 million with Pinion, if Lee was released after June 1. And of course that number goes up in subsequent years. These are not massive figures eachyear, but you can do a lot with that in the form of signing bonus proration. The 49ers have numerous players they will have to start paying, and with Colin Kaepernick's contract value increasing in the coming years, they need to find space wherever they can.
The real question is whether or not Pinion will be replacing Lee this year. On the one hand, it seems like you would not spend a fifth round pick on a punter if you were not pretty certain he would replace your current punter. On the other hand, Pinion also has a strong leg for kickoffs and 50+ field goal attempts. I don't expect it, but I suppose the 49ers could decide to keep a punter (Lee), a kicker (Dawson) and then a bigger legged specialist (Pinion). I really doubt the latter happens, but maybe the 49ers are thinking a bit longer term in that regard.
One other aspect of this that is worth noting is holding duties. Lee handles those duties for the 49ers, and I am not entirely sure if Bradley Pinion did that at Clemson. If he did, that smoothes the transition. If he did not, that raises another question in all this. That's not to say he couldn't learn the role in the next few months, but it would be something to consider.