The San Francisco 49ers threw most 49ers fans for a loop on Saturday when they selected Clemson punter Bradley Pinion with a fifth round pick. The 49ers traded down with the Indianapolis Colts from No. 151 to No. 165, picking up a seventh round pick for the move. And then they drafted a player at a position that seems set for the foreseeable future.
I don't know why a team goes that early for a punter, but clearly they like what he brings to the table. The bigger question is why draft him when the team has Andy Lee. Well, as is often the case, there is a good chance that this is all about salary cap management. Lee is due to have a cap hit of $2,550,000 in 2015. It increases to $3,333,000 in 2016, $3,433,000 in 2017 and $4,134,000 in 2018.
If the 49ers release or trade Lee before June 1, the team saves $1,550,000 in cap space, and carries $1 million in dead money. If they release Lee after June 1, they save $2,050,000 in cap space, and carry $500,000 in dead money. If Pinion makes the roster, his 2015 cap figure would be approximately $477,215. The remainder of his rookie deal would include potential cap hits of $567,215, $657,215 and $747,215. The savings are not monstrous, but they are not something to overlook.
In his conference call after being selected, Pinion said he was told there would be an open competition. I get having open competitions, but when you draft a punter in the fifth round, it appears to me like you have a strong intention of making a change at the position. The 49ers made a change at long snapper each of the last two years after a long time with Brian Jennings. These things happen given the nature of the salary cap.
Trent Baalke recently met with the media and had this to say:
Trent Baalke on kicker/punter: "...we feel good going into this season that it (making a change) probably isn’t going to be this season."— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) May 2, 2015
I guess the emphasis needs to be on "probably" in that comment. He was not lying, but he definitely lulled people into thinking it was off the board. Pinion can also work as a kickoff specialist. He has a ridiculously strong leg, and Phil Dawson's kickoffs have gone downhill. But I also can't imagine the 49ers carrying a punter, a kicker and a kickoff specialist. Well, I can't imagine it given the use of a fifth round pick. It all comes back to that pick. It is unexpected, and has everybody wondering what's up with the pick.
I find it hard to defend this pick, but I do see some of the potential rationale for it. Of course, if the 49ers end up cutting Pinion by the end of training camp, the whole thing will seem all the more crazy. For now though, based on what rationale I can come up with, the 49ers most likely rookie starter to emerge from the 2015 NFL Draft could be a punter. Who knew?!