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9 Days till Camp: Was it worth it to draft a punter in the fourth round?



© Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Remember back in 2015, when the 49ers drafted Bradley Pinion, a punter from Clemson in the fifth round of the NFL Draft? He was the 49ers’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award back in 2017 and was the NFL’s Player of the Week on Special Teams in Week 9 last season.

He led the NFL with 100 total punts in 2016 (not coffin corner or long distance punts, just… total, so not much of a feat on his part) and he is very tall at 6’5″. He signed on a four-year deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason after it was reported he did not expect to be back with the team. As explored in that piece, Pinion and the 49ers’ punt unit were average last season.

So, the 49ers took a pretty heavy swing on Mitch Wishnowsky, a 27-year-old Australian who grew up playing Aussie rules football before heading to the University of Utah with a thunder leg that sends pinpoint knuckleballs in the air with nonsensical hangtimes. The 49ers saw one of these five-plus second hangtime punts and were clearly enamored enough to snag him in the fourth round this season.

In his 2016 season at Utah, he won the Ray Guy Award (best punter in college football), and over the course of his college career, he had a career 45.7-yard punt average, which makes him the PAC-12 leader in yards per punt since 2000.

For many, punting lacks a certain sexiness. While I categorically disagree that a perfectly-placed missile of a punt that trots and pirouettes its way down to the one-yard line isn’t sexy, I understand why punting is the least discussed part of football. But the 49ers clearly understand the value of field position, and the importance of getting a guy who can keep opponents pinned deep in their own half, or flip the field when the 49ers are pinned.

The reason the 49ers understand the value of this is because the 49ers had the worst starting field position on offense (25.42-yard line) in the NFL last season, and were second-worst in starting field position (30.95-yard line) on defense. Plenty of that had to do with the team’s last-place turnover ratio (.173 turnovers per possession on offense, second-worst; 0.040 turnovers per possession on defense; a combined 4.325 turnover ratio), but the team’s punting unit did little to get the 49ers out of that frequent trouble.

Out of the 34 punters who notched 20 or more punts last season, Pinion was tied for 19th in punts inside the 20-yard line with 22. Out of 32 qualified punters, Pinion also ranked 24th in net punting average (39.1 yards) and 29th in gross punting average (43.7 yards). While punt distance isn’t necessarily an indicator of a good punter, the fact that the 49ers started and finished so many drives in their own half did not help Pinion’s case.

Wishnowsky showed the ability to punt for distance in college, although he lost a bit in his second two years, but he’s much more known for his his punting control. If he can consistently sky the ball like he did in the video above and locate his punts, it could be a massive boon for a team that was ruined in the field position battle last season.

Another benefit to having Wishnowsky? He’s incredibly athletic. Seriously. He ran a 4.63-second 40-yard dash, showed off a 32.5-inch vertical and 117-inch broad jump at the NFL combine this year. When it comes to trickery on a fake punt or field goal, or chasing down a returner in the open field, that could be valuable. It’s not something to determine what his punting ability is like, but with an already evident ability to pin the ball down, that’s a legitimate bonus to potentially plan some trick plays around.

Still, there are some flaws to Wishnowsky’s game. He led college football last season by having three blocked punts, sometimes making Aussie rules drop kick punts with oncoming pressure, and could struggle to flip the field when most needed. With those potential drawbacks in mind, the real question is, with the 49ers in dire need of secondary depth, and players like cornerback Kendall Sheffield and safety Amani Hooker on the board, was it worth taking Wishnowsky this high? That’s a question that will loom over this season if the secondary struggles and Wishnowsky isn’t stellar.

Note: This piece is part of a countdown to training camp feature which, each day leading up to the start of training camp on July 27, will take a look at one of the 10 biggest questions the 49ers will have to answer this season. While camp officially starts on July 26, the first practice is July 27.

To read Wednesday’s piece on the 49ers young receiving corps, click here.