Each year, we run a series of post called "90-in-90" here at Niners Nation. The idea is that we'll take a look at every single player on the roster, from the very bottom to the top and break them down a few different ways. This is to help give everyone a basic understanding of a roster. Of course, this roster will change, and some days we'll have more than one so it's not strictly one per day but you get the idea.
When the San Francisco 49ers traded away punter Andy Lee, it was obvious someone in the front office didn’t like the contract. One of the top punters in the league ever since he joined the 49ers in 2004, Lee was getting up there in years and was paid like a top tier punter. If we’re going with the “it’s better to move on too early than it is to move on too late” adage then I suppose the move made sense.
But it was still worrying to see. Lee had 28 punts downed inside the 20-yard line in 2014, and had put up single-digit touchbacks in all but two of his seasons with the 49ers over the years.
Couple that with the fact that the 49ers replaced Lee with a rookie, one they drafted in the fifth round and you’ve got a recipe for potential disaster. As a serial special teams worrier myself, I was confident things were about to get very, very bad for the unit. I was not impressed with Pinion’s leg in college, based on the film study I conducted after the draft. But was that borne out on the stat sheet?
Not really. As usual, I may have been overreacting but I have to say that I still was not impressed with Pinion. His hangtime left a lot to be desired and I just felt that things came up short more often than naught.
The stat sheet for punters is never the be-all, end-all but the chart above does show that there wasn’t a ton of difference between the two last season. Lee obviously has better stats overall, but just barely. It’s worth noting that “barely” can often be a huge difference in a game, but as far as statistics the NFL tracks, that’s those laid bare.
Stats can vary for punters from one season to the next, and sometimes there isn’t a whole lot that you can do to predict it. But Pinion’s rookie season at least is in the right ballpark, and that’s really all that matters at this stage.
He looks like an NFL punter. For many teams, including the 49ers, that’s enough. Having the best punter in the league doesn’t automatically make a team great by any stretch of the imagination.
But there are other stats, and rather than do it all myself I’ll instead direct you to some excellent special teams analysis from Chuck Zodda of Inside The Pylon. He came p with two metrics to measure punting efficiency. The first is called “open field” punting, which is the gross average yards for a punter when he isn’t trying for a touchback and “pin deep punting,” his ability to stay away from touchbacks on punts from his own 41-yard line and closer.
This analysis shows that Lee is tied for third in the league with 44 open field punts and a gross average of 50.6 yards for those punts. Pinion had 68 open field punts and a gross average of 45.3 yards, coming up at 95 percent of the league average to Lee’s 105 percent.
For pin-deep punts, Lee had 25 of them and had just two touchbacks, a stellar eight percent. Pinion is again lower on the list in this stat, with 23 pin-deep attempts and five touchback, at a rate of 22 percent.
Zodda concluded that Lee was one of the top five punters in the league when it came to distance-control, or the battle for field position. The gap wasn’t massive if we’re talking about a direct comparison to Lee and Pinion, but the small gaps matter plenty when it comes to punting.
So did the 49ers make a grave error? Not necessarily. Comparing Pinion’s rookie year to Lee’s rookie year in 2004, the numbers are similar. Lee averaged 41.6 yards per punt, a new average of 36.9 yards an eight touchbacks with 25 punts inside the 20. All of those numbers were worse than Pinion’s rookie season. The 22-year-old out of Clemson has plenty of room to grow, even if there were aspects of his game that didn’t impress as a rookie.
Experience: 2nd season
He is entering year two of his four-year rookie contract. He will earn a base salary of $525,000, and have a cap hit of $573,550.
Why he might improve
Pinion is a young punter playing for a team that punted a lot when he was a rookie and will surely punt plenty in his sophomore season. At 22 years old, he has a potential two decades in the league ahead of him if he has the kind of longevity that other punters have been capable of. He has a very simple but very difficult job and he can solely focus on getting better and better at that job. Improvement should be expected.
Why he might regress
Even the best punters in the league have down years, and it’s typically inexplicable. One year, Lee had 13 tochdowns and another year he only downed 13 punts inside the 20-yard line. These things fluctuate, and while there’s really no way to predict how and why a 22-year-old punter will experience regression from his rookie to sophomore seasons, it can happen. The 49ers have a new coaching staff, which should mean less for punters, but who really knows? Don’t expect it, but don’t rule it out either. My guess is that Pinion will be fine.
Odds of making the roster
The 49ers spent a fifth-round pick on Pinion, despite no hints that another team was actually going to select him. Somebody in the front office felt strongly about him — or strongly about replacing Lee. Whatever the case, they have invested in Pinion, he looked good enough as a rookie and there’s nobody to seriously challenge him. There is no reason to expect his job is in danger any time soon.