The Punter Theory: Deconstructing the 49ers’ Fourth-Round Pick

Bret Rumbeck
May 4, 2019 at 7:45 AM

Four years ago, former San Francisco 49ers' general manager Trent Baalke selected punter Bradley Pinion in the 5th round of the 2015 NFL Draft. The 49ers already had a capable punter in Andy Lee on the roster, but Baalke decided Lee's services and his 46.4 average yards per punt were no longer needed in the Bay.

Just when the groans about the Pinion pick had been lost to the memory hole, general manager John Lynch selected punter Mitch Wishnowsky from Utah in the fourth round of the 2019 draft.

Most fan and expert reactions were a justified balance between angry and confused. It was as if Lynch forgot the 49ers' defense struggled to remain consistent and healthy in 2018, and his weak roster of interior offensive linemen.

In between shouts at the television and the roaring Twitter debate, 49er fans watched three defensive backs, two guards, one linebacker and one edge defender get drafted after Wishnowsky. These position groups were all roster needs coming into the draft.

Losing Pinion to free agency was akin to spilling a bit of coffee on a white shirt; soak the spot in some club soda, and then cover it up with a suit coat. I saw no draft expert or football pundit making any claim that Lynch needed to seek an heir apparent in the draft.

With over a week gone by, let's try and find the answers to this mystery together.

An Objective View

I have no doubt in 100 years of professional football, a team or two won a close game because the punter kicked a perfect 52-yard punt, trapping the offense inside its own five-yard line. And maybe, somewhere floating through the ethos of infinite time, is a post-game transcript with a head coach heaping a spoonful of praise on his punter for the crucial kick.

Little things, like a coffin-corner punt at the right time, can win close games and place a team inches closer to hoisting seven pounds of sterling silver into the air; it's the little things the 49ers have not done well over the past few seasons.

Maybe Baalke crunched Lee's stats before drafting Pinion. If he did, Baalke would have noticed that Lee pinned the opponent inside the 20-yard line 300 times in 941 attempts – about 32 percent of the time.

Pinion was an upgrade. In four seasons, Pinion has 334 career punt attempts and placed the football inside the 20-yard line 131 times, or on about 39 percent of his kicks.

With assistance from the slightly thin, alkaline air of Salt Lake City, Wishnowsky 74 of 175 career punts land inside the 20-yard line, which was about 42 percent of the time.

Further, Wishnowsky kicked 62 punts over 50 yards and averaged 45.7 yards per punt in three seasons at Utah. Pinion left Clemson with a 41.1 yards per punt average, and could only add on 2.6 yards on his college average while in San Francisco.

If Wishnowsky follows the same path, the 49ers could have a kicker averaging 48 yards or more per punt.

Looking at these numbers, Wishnowsky fits a need and a gap in the 49ers roster. The pick might have been a bit early, but was necessary.

The Numbers Do Not Justify Wasting a Pick

Average yards per punt and the hope of more than 40 percent of punts landing inside the 20-yard line are not the cornerstones of championship football.

There's been plenty of fan chatter defending the pick, but a properly balanced football team with a fiery, consistent offense and stingy, stout, sound defense simply does not need to rely on a kicker for wins.

An opponent's starting field position does not corollate to whether the 49ers win or lose a game.

Back in 2011, 49er opponents started drives on their own 24.3-yard line. The next year, opponents started drives on the 24.9-yard line. Six-tenths of a yard was not the reason the 49ers won 13 games in 2011, nor was it the reason the team dropped to 11 wins in 2012.

In 2012, Lee had 36 punts that put opposing teams inside the 20-yard line. It's a useful statistic, and a small reason opposing offenses started drives behind the 25-yard line.

Coincidentally, Pinion had 36 punts inside the 20 in 2015 when the 49ers finished 5-11 and again in 2017 when the 49ers finished 6-10. The 49ers' defense was 18th overall in 2015, and 25th in 2017.

Of note, Lee had 42 punts inside the 20 in 2007, but the opposition started drives on their own 30.2-yard line. A thin defense allowed an average of almost 30 yards per drive, and the 49ers only finished with 5 wins.

The 49ers' defense was 2nd in the NFL in 2011 and 2012, racking up 63 takeaways and allowing an average of 3.6 yards per rush. The defense also finished both seasons second in the league in the number of first downs allowed.

Even with the 11th best offense in 2011 and 2012, the 49ers were able to sustain drives over 2:30 seconds. The offense benefited from excellent field position both seasons, starting drives at its own 33.5-yard line in 2011 and 31.8-yard line in 2012 – both league bests.

I won't deny the last two seasons the 49ers have suffered from unfortunate injuries to key players. It's hard to scrape together a .500 record with third-string players in starting roles.

On May 2, Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network tweeted the 49ers were not exercising guard Joshua Garnett's fifth-year option. Now, I have a hard time believing that two weeks ago, Lynch and Shanahan didn't already have this idea in mind.

At some point, the lack of investment at the guard position is going to come back to bite the 49ers. Guards Laken Tomlinson and Mike Person are capable players, but can capable win the NFC West? What happens if either of these men succumbs to an injury? We've seen the results when the 49ers play subpar talent on the offensive line.

I'm wholly unclear why the need for a punter was more significant than taking Oklahoma guard Dru Samia with the 110th overall pick.

A punter is not going to clear a running lane for a back or protect Jimmy Garoppolo during a late 4th quarter drive.

A 65-yard punt that pins the Rams or Chiefs inside their own 10-yard line is a good start, but we live in an NFL full of high-powered offenses that destroy weak secondaries and exploit linebackers who overpursue running lanes.

I want to see the selection of Wishnowsky through the eyes of the 49ers' brass, but I'm exhausted from the 49ers punching holes in the raft and then cheering about the warm water seeping through the floor.

I hope I'm woefully wrong and overblowing a fourth-round draft pick; otherwise, each sack, blown coverage or bad punt is going to hang like a black cloud over the 2019 season.

All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.
  • Bret Rumbeck
  • Written by:
    Bret Rumbeck has been writing about the 49ers since 2017 for 49ers Webzone and 49ers Hub. He is a Turlock, CA native, and has worked for two members of the US House of Representatives and one US Senator. When not breaking down game film, Bret spends his time seeking out various forms of heavy metal. Feel free to follow him or direct inquiries to @brumbeck.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Dietrich from Maui
    The biggest thing about the punter imho is he only had 106 return yards on his last 100 punts.. let that sink in. His hang time and distance is a WEAPON. our defense will benefit from him if he can always make the other offense drive a long distance. Some games last year the opponent started on our side of the field on 40% of their possessions it seemed
    May 5, 2019 at 1:52 AM
  • Rice-A-Ronnie
    Good article and I think in your conclusion you are accurate. I am actually surprised how many people here think burning a front end 4th Rd pick is worth a punter. Wishnowsky could become an All Pro punter and I still don't think he would be worth the pick. And it's because of what you said, we have bigger needs. The replacement value simply isn't that different. We are talking about 3 or 4 net yards different. Is 3yds worth a 4th a rounder for a team with this many needs? Pinion (or any other replacement Punter) Rookie Guard is better than this guy. Now if you take him in the 5th or 6th round it becomes more plausible. Kyle indicated that the Patriots may have wanted him because they moved up for a punter. But the Patriots had like 10 picks before they took a punter and they have a super bowl caliber roster. How does that compare to us? Bad move Kyle and Lynch.
    May 4, 2019 at 4:06 PM
  • Andy
    The problem with statistics is that you can use them to prove whatever position you want to take and statistics out of context are totally meaningless. For example, the percentage of kicks that pin or don't pin the other team inside their 20 means nothing unless you know where they were being kicked from. It is pretty hard to pin a team back if you are punting from your own 5 yard line. So unless you examine all the data relating to the number of pins inside the 20 this writer's figures mean NOTHING! As to anyone who implies that Pinion was an upgrade over Lee, either they are completely ignorant or are desperate to make their point any way they. Andy Lee had some of his longest kicks in critical situations and these kicks changed field position, affected the play calling and gave his team momentum. in similar situation Pinions made some of his worse kicks, often making a bad situation worse. Articles like this are what happens this time of the year when there is really nothing to write about and these people have to justify their paychecks.
    May 4, 2019 at 1:57 PM
  • BW
    Amen and amen. PFF also ranked the 49ers OL in the bottom 10. Seven of the top eleven OL teams were in the playoffs and all of the final four were top eleven. Five of the first seven picks in the draft were held by teams with an OL rank in the bottom 10.
    May 4, 2019 at 1:05 PM
  • William Bruneau
    Did none of you look at Wishnowsky's highlights? The guy executed a beautiful onside kick, which he recovered himself in great rugby style. Or the 20 yards he ran for a first down on a fake kick? God knows we hope to never be desperate in a game but having Wishnowsky kick will at least cause caution on the opposing team. Also, this guy is an ex-rugby player. I guarantee no flinch at atempts at block. I think one time on the HL film he actually faked out the other team one way before kicking the other. This punter has greeat smarts and balls. I expect some great plays this year, and maybe even more inside the 10 yard line
    May 4, 2019 at 1:04 PM
  • Matt
    Pinning someone inside the 20 is ok. Pinning someone inside 7 yards is much better. I’d be more interested to see how many times they coffin-corner their punt as opposed to pinning someone on the 17 yard line.
    May 4, 2019 at 1:02 PM
  • an
    i don't have a problem with the pick. how many 4th round picks end up being starters? how many contribute to the team? maybe 25%. maybe. look at 49ers 4th rounders over the last decade, which one is contributing to the team now? how many are there? they got someone who realistically will contribute to the team right away. and though not sexy, changing field position is extremely important to winning football games.
    May 4, 2019 at 12:01 PM
  • Tom
    I made the mistake of reading this without checking the byline. I usually ignore your articles because you generally come across as being pretty clueless about the team and the game itself. So here is a suggestion for an end of season wrap up piece. Make a list of all of the players available at this draft spot who you think the team should have taken. Make the list now and post it so as to avoid being able to add any dark horse, late round picks who no one saw coming but end up making a big impact on their team, like Brady or Colston for the Saints. At the end of season you can compare the contributions that your picks made to their team as opposed to the contributions that Wishnowsky made as a punter. Was watching the second Seattle game last night and seeing their punter consistently pinning the team inside the five and limiting the amount of return yards the team could get because of the height or placement of his kicks seems like a skill set that is certainly worth a fourth round pick as opposed to someone who ends up being a back up guard or DB. The gauntlet's been thrown down. Pick it up and prove how much smarter you are than the front office
    May 4, 2019 at 11:28 AM
  • Dan
    Anybody who claims Pinion was an improvement over anyone is either not watching the games or is high. He was literally unable to punt under pressure. I’d rather spend a 4th round pick on someone who doesn’t shank it out of bounds on critical punt after critical punt. Like the article says, it’s the little things. They become become huge in tight games and this needed to be addressed.
    May 4, 2019 at 11:10 AM
  • Craig
    Here is another stupid idea. Maybe The Niners were also signaling to the Bears that they value kickers as 4th round picks, telling the Bears that is what they need to cough up if they want Gould. I know, stupid, especially if you waste that 4th round pick on a punter anyway, but might be a way of signaling to the Bears and the rest of the league how they value Gould.
    May 4, 2019 at 10:40 AM
  • Mood_Indigo
    This article is typical of the punditry of armchair GMs who are "unburdened by the thought process" as the Tappett Brothers, Tom and Ray, would observe. The Niners had 184 "draftworthy" players on the board. When they drafted the punter at that position (106?) they felt that this player who was a sure starter gave them more chances to win games than any other player at some other position who would most likely be a backup player (or be cut) which is the case with all the players that the Niners drafted after Wishnowsky. They figured that the DBs and O linemen available at 106 were not better than what they already have. Same reason for Bellichick to take a punter in the 5th. Of course, armchair GMs have their own assessments I suppose.
    May 4, 2019 at 10:02 AM
  • grizz
    I have to say I agree, and that Lynch and Shanahan need to stop making the excuse "it's hard to beat out player X and Player Y..." that stupid quote was running through my head all last year (BTW Attachou, or player X, got beaten in training camp). And now same song and dance but with the secondary. I love that we finally upgraded the edge, And I hate to rain on our parade, but last year the Chiefs had a great D-line, and one good CB and then got destroyed by other teams passing game. Frankly he is going to have to have some succesful fake punts for me not to be annoyed in the future.
    May 4, 2019 at 9:49 AM
  • Tim
    Just because they didn’t excessive Garnett’s 5th year option doesn’t mean they don’t want him they just don’t want him at that price. Plus they signed Ben Garland who is a decent backup to add more depth.
    May 4, 2019 at 8:58 AM
  • Brian
    This analysis assumes that the choice was between an offensive/defensive contributor and a special teams contributor. The reality is, the rate at which fourth round picks turn into significant contributors on offense or defense is very low. So the choice is really something like this: a 90% chance at a significant special teams contributor, or a 10% chance (I think that's actually high) at a significant offense/defense contributor. In a few years, of course, a couple of people drafted post-third-round will turn out to be great, and "analysts" will point out the missed opportunity. But nobody will point out that the overwhelming majority of fourth round picks contributed nothing to their teams, and that this is true every year. The safe bet is that the best punter in the draft will far outperform, in terms of contribution, the overwhelming majority of fourth round picks. It's not normative, so it's viewed as a failure, but the truth is that most of the teams in the league just drafted nothing in the fourth round, and the 49ers drafted something. I'll take it.
    May 4, 2019 at 8:47 AM
  • NCommand
    That's a really nice article and nice balanced research. A couple other points you can add to the balance, Wish's splits were dramatically different at home vs. away (altitude) and the NFL balls are heavier and bigger and many games will be in windy stadiums with inclimate weather. Also, his style of run-punting lead to the most blocked kicks. Dickson too had 2 in one game against the Cardinals (one called back). Both will have to adjust at the NFL as teams come after them going forward. Pat's also got their punter with their 9th pick of the draft with a championship roster. Ours was 110 overall. Enormous difference. Great job!!
    May 4, 2019 at 7:59 AM

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