Forty-Niners Special Teams Coach Richard Hightower is going to be under the microscope in the 2017 season because his units will be counted on to make up for the inevitable mistakes of the offensive and defensive units this season. This second part of the two-part series on the special team units continues with a look at Bradley Pinon and Robbie Gould, the punter and kicker who will be assigned the task of masking the mistakes of both the offensive and defensive units.
In an off-season of turnover and competition, it only makes sense that the special teams units will be affected by these upgrades. Kicker Robbie Gould was added by general manager John Lynch after incumbent Phil Dawson was not re-signed for the 2017 season. Punter Bradley Pinon, on the other hand, returns to the 49ers after being drafted in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Although, as covered in the first part of this series Runner and Gunners, he will find his fellow punt coverage units upgraded around him, which should help him reach his full potential as a drafted punter. We will take a closer look at these two important players starting with Pinon.
Pinoning ‘Em Deep:
A shocking pick in the fifth round of the 2015 draft, Pinon was brought in at a time when the team still had All-Pro Andy Lee under contract for three more seasons. Once drafted, Lee was subsequently traded to the Cleveland Browns for a seventh round pick. While not a popular or sexy pick in the fifth round, for a team that had obvious holes through the roster, Pinon has been a consistently improving player. In 2016, Pinon’s average improved from 43.6 to 44.0 yards per punt, and his longest punt on the season improved from 62 to 65 yards. During the first part of this series, we spoke about the average starting field position of the team and the effect on the team’s average scoring per drive. Pinon directly affects this effort, and adding speed at the gunner position will help him with this.
While Pinon has shown improvement, more is still desired. Pinon sent off more than one punt last season that left fans stomach’s churning.
Nine years as the franchise’s most accurate and effective kicker was not enough to see Robbie Gould’s career continue in Chicago after a horrid fourth preseason game in 2016. On that day, Gould missed two extra point attempts and saw his time as a Bear come to an end. This, after a career in Chicago that saw Gould post a career average of 84.75, including going 18 of 22 on kicks over 50 yards during since 2011. After sitting out the first four weeks of the 2016 season as a free agent, Gould received a call from the New York Giants to replace disgraced kicker Josh Brown. Having a perfect 12 for 12 to finish the year, Gould was brought into the 49ers to replace another of the league’s most accurate kickers, Phil Dawson.
In 2016, Dawson did a serviceable job as the teams place kicker, making 85.7% of his field goal attempts last season and seeing 97.1% of his extra point attempts sail through the uprights. Missed kicks during the season contributed to losses. Gould can help improve the team’s 2-14 2016 record.
One thing Gould has going for him this season is that he does not have to battle the monumental wind conditions he had to master when kicking in Solider Field. Dawson spoke last season about the conditions in Santa Clara, while not as bad as Candlestick Park, Solider Field or the Dog Pound in Cleveland, there are some unique conditions found at Bill Walsh Field.
Neither Pinon nor Gould will face competition at their primary positions, but they will face off with each other for the role of Kickoff Specialist. Both Gould and Pinon have handled the duties in the past. One would think Pinon has the advantage in this battle having displayed an extremely strong leg over his career and highlighted by his 100-yard kickoff in a showcase he competed in during high school. New rules on touchbacks may have an effect on this battle, though, as the league granted five extra yards on touchbacks last season, which means precision kicking may outweigh a powerful leg.
As always, keep your eyes wide open, 49er fans. Niners Live will be watching with you. #eyeswideopen and often imitated but never duplicated… Go Niners.
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All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, Pro Football Focus, 49ers.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author, Edward Erving Staff Writer at Niners Live, Co-Author, Editor Niners Live.