Editor’s note: Matt Maiocco will provide daily content previewing the NFL Draft, including position breakdowns, news stories, mock drafts and more. Here, he analyzes draft prospects on special teams, and whether the 49ers should select one.
The 49ers made the surprising move a year ago to trade up in the fifth round to select a punter.
And that signaled the end of Andy Lee’s tenure with the 49ers.
Rookie Bradley Pinion, who turned pro after his junior season at Clemson, was the only punter selected in last year’s draft. Lee was traded to the Cleveland Browns after being deemed expendable with Pinion’s arrival.
Pinion had the kind of year expected from a rookie. He had some good games. He had some bad games. His net average was a respectable 39.4 yards. He was tied for sixth in the league with his 31 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, and he had just five touchbacks.
Meanwhile, kicker Phil Dawson’s career is winding down. But with the NFL’s decision to move extra points back to, in essence, 33-yard field goals, a reliable kicker is more important than ever.
The 49ers re-signed Dawson, 41, to a one-year contract as a free agent.
Who’s here: K Phil Dawson, P Bradley Pinion, LS Kyle Nelson, K Corey Acosta, PR/KO Bruce Ellington, PR Jarryd Hayne, KR Quinton Patton, KR DeAndrew White.
Draft needs: The 49ers expect Pinion, who turns 22 in June, to make steady improvement through the early years of his career. And Dawson is going nowhere, either.
But where the 49ers could look to create more competition is in the return game. Ellington spent much of his first two NFL seasons as the team’s top return man on kickoffs and punts. The 49ers need more explosiveness from that area of their game. Ellington averaged 7.2 yards per punt return, along with a 25.6 average on kickoffs. Hayne returned eight punts with a 9.5 average.
Good fits: The 49ers could use one of their picks in the second, third or fourth rounds to help in the return game. Among the candidates are South Carolina wide receiver Pharoh Cooper, and running back Kenyan Drake and cornerback Cyrus Jones, both from Alabama. Jones had four punt returns for touchdowns last season. The 49ers also could consider San Jose State running back Tyler Ervin in the middle rounds.