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After drafting Pittsburgh's elite cornerback in Shawntae Spencer in the second round of the 2004 NFL draft, the San Francisco 49ers once again looked at the University of Pittsburgh in the sixth round 188th overall to draft Pittsburgh Panther punter Andy Lee.
Andy Lee replaces a departed Bill LaFleur who made many expensive mistakes that cost the 49ers throughout the 2003 campaign. LaFleur can best be remembered in the October game last year against the Seattle Seahawks in which he botched a snap on an extra point attempt. This in conjunction with new kicker Owen Pochman was too much to bear.
Still even more damaging was the later game in that same month with the Arizona Cardinals in which LaFleur once again botched the hold on a point after attempt and then had a punt blocked inside the 49ers 20-yard line that led to a field goal for the Arizona Cardinals and ultimate upset over the San Francisco 49ers in a 16-13 overtime loss.
No thanks to bargain priced Owen Pochman as well in replacing incumbent Jeff Chandler in Week Two of the 49ers season in which he missed two critical field goals in this very game that cost them a victory after riding high on their previous win over Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"The guys fought hard and I let everybody down," Pochman said as he packed his belongings. "That's all I have to say." "That's bull, frankly, bull," Jeremy Newberry said at his locker. "That's all there is to say about it. There's three phases to this game, and you can't let one phase let you down week after week. It's inexcusable." "Obviously, we're going to have to do something." Donahue said. Added defensive tackle Chidi Ahanotu: "This is the NFL. You've got to make changes." Said coach Dennis Erickson: "The special teams weren't very damn special."
This was the game that defined the special teams on the San Francisco 49ers last season. It identified all of its weaknesses and apparent flaws. Need we say that the special teams units on the San Francisco 49ers have not been at all that special in a very long time?
Kicker Owen Pochman and Punter Bill LaFleur were laughing stocks in the NFL. That said period. You get what you pay for as so many have said before and both of these un-drafted free agents never made the grade in the league so why should they have then? It was a debate that went on throughout the season as labeling Dr. John York as being so cheap he wanted to sign the least expensive agent to hopefully make the team and safeguard against spending too much money on a proven veteran.
Bill LaFleur was a renegade punter taken off waivers from the San Diego Charger practice squad. He should've stayed on that practice squad in my opinion as he not only botched extra point attempts and had blocked punts, but he also posted an average of just 38.7-yards per punt and there were many a punt that were for 20-yards or less. Thus this placed the team at a distinct disadvantage in field position and being able to manage the clock and hold the opposition to a stalemate.
Pittsburgh Panther Andy Lee gives this team a punter that has a chance to be someone special. He has a chance to lock up this position and make it a team strength with training camp right around the corner. He was All-American third-team selection by the NFL Draft Report. He was Semi-Finalist for the Ray Guy Award, given to the nations top punter. He made All-Big East Conference first-team and co-Special Teams Player of the Year in 2003.
He also earned Big East Player of the Week honors versus Syracuse, Boston College and Temple. He punted 77 times for 3399 yards, with 23 attempts downed inside the 20-yard line. His 44.1-yard average was the best in the Big East since 1997. (Virginia Tech's Jimmy Kibble averaged 45.1 yards that year). While in high school he was a three-sport standout while at West-Oak High. He punted 244 times for 10,353-yards (42.4 average) with 28 touchbacks, 29 fair catches, 61 kicks downed inside the 20-yard line and three blocked kicks at Pittsburgh.
When you look at Andy Lee you see a well -rounded fresh cut kid who looks like someone right off a sports magazine for fitness. His first love in his life as far as sports though wasn't football at all but baseball. His love for the game of baseball helped tone him into the punter he is today.
"When I was in eighth grade, I played quarterback and punter for my middle school team," Andy Lee said. "But I went out and was a big baseball player. I loved to play baseball, so I didn't want to get hurt for my ninth-grade year. Well, the varsity football coach at our school said that they needed a punter to just come out and punt. So I went out my freshman year and just punted."
That is when the kid suddenly became a man. Lee took this position seriously and performed well, but went on to play tight end and wide receiver as well for his high school team in North Carolina. Baseball still beckoned him from time to time and he played that off and on, but when he got to the University of Pittsburgh he had a decision to make as an athlete.
It is a decision that would be played upon his foot as he worked feverishly with his high school kicking coach before coming to Pittsburgh working on his technique and development as a punter that would land him a roster spot with the Pittsburgh Panthers.
"I was real close to playing both sports at Pittsburgh, but I decided after my freshman year at Pittsburgh that I wasn't completely happy with myself with punting," Lee said. "So I thought I would wait until after my sophomore year, but I wasn't completely happy. I just wanted to get better and better at punting and just focus on that and leave baseball behind."
His career as a Pittsburgh Panther blossomed right away as a punter as in the year 2000 he averaged 39.2-yards, 2001 was 41.1-yards, 2002 was 43.1-yards and finally 2003 he averaged 44.1-yards with three punts being blocked. In 2003 he punted 77 times and had a long punt of 62-yards, while in 2001 he had longs of 70 and in 2002 73 total yards. He dropped 23 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line in 2003 beating 17 inside the 20 in 2002.
The San Francisco 49ers want Andy Lee to succeed and will give him every opportunity to do so throughout training camp and pre-season time. He also will be considered for holding for field goals and placements, in which he averages 1.24 seconds (handle time), and has the ability to speed even this up under intense pressure.
What Andy Lee does best is angling his punts towards the sidelines thus enhancing his pooch on the kick, so they fall inside the 20-yard line. The only real negatives on Lee are pressure situations as with anyone in that he loses some leg strength in speeding up his delivery.
He also has a history of not kicking well in bad weather situations. He doesn't seem to drive the ball with punch to cut through the wind, something that is mandatory in the swirling winds that inhabit 3-Com Park. His punts tend to hang on him and get caught inside the crosswinds, thus this is something he'll have to prove that it won't be an issue as a 49er.
Andy Lee stands 6-0 and weighs 199-pounds and has run the 40-yard dash in 5.00. His greatest strengths are consistency and being mechanically sound. He has very nice hang time and unbelievable directional skills. Great assets that you want a punter to possess at all times as they play a huge part in pinning the opponent inside poor field position. His weaknesses point to his minor knee surgery between his junior and senior seasons and his size and hands seem to be only adequate at best.
Overall though Andy Lee is an instant upgrade over a Bill LaFleur as he will show the league that he is worthy of being a sixth round pick and will provide special teams with a much needed boost that has been more than lacking for a long time.
Looking back on recent mini-camps head coach Dennis Erickson already has a list of leading contenders for the return jobs in both kicking and punting. Wide receivers Arnaz Battle, Derrick Hamilton and Cedrick Wilson looked great at camp as did cornerback Jimmy Williams and running back Jamal Robertson. Last season, Cedrick Wilson proved himself worthy of being the main kickoff return specialist and a third string wide receiver.
He returned 37 kicks for 836-yards for a (22.6 average) and one touchdown. He most certainly will get serious consideration to do the same this season. Jimmy Williams meanwhile was the main punt return specialist but he averaged just less than seven yards per attempt on his 35 returns, which spells for more competition in this area for sure. This is definitely an area that is neglected or written off by the team as being merely insignificant, but in hindsight it is very important in regards to field position and clock management.
Reconstructive knee surgery that was performed on Jimmy Williams in 2002 limited his abilities somewhat as a punt specialist last season. He admitted to being hesitant and unsure, as he believed he was playing at only 80% capacity. This year he wants to win the job and prove that he is at 100% to handle the punt return duties as relied upon to do.
At his best in 2002 he averaged 16.8-yards per punt and was by far superior and regarded in the league as being one of the most dangerous. It would be a blessing to all 49er fans if he could match that or better it inside training camp and into the pre-season.
Anyway you want to look at it, special teams needs to be a priority and Dennis Erickson deserves credit for making this a heightened priority. This is an area that the 49ers need more instant gratification from and has been missing out on the opportunities it presents if executed right. In a league where every single point counts, it just makes sense that you give this unit all the help it can get.