All NFL contract extensions are safer than the ones you’ll see in baseball, basketball, hockey and the rest because they aren’t guaranteed, but signing Andy Lee to a 6-year contract extension takes that inherent lack of risk to another level. This extension is a tank. It’s a 1980s Saab or Volvo. You could roll this extension over and leave it sitting upside down, send it off a cliff, submerge it in the Bay — still safe. As far as contracts go, this one’s pretty much indestructible.
According to Spotrac, Lee’s average salary before signing the new contract (a shade under $1.2 million) was 12th overall among punters, less than a third what Shane Lechler and Mike Scifres earn. Since Lee was named 1st-Team All-Pro for the second time in 2011 (2007 was the other year) after setting an NFL record in net punting average, he was due for a raise … and it sounds like now he’ll be in the Lechler zone of about $4 million per.
Not only did Lee lead the league last season in net average (44.0, ahead of the Saints’ Thomas Morstead at 43.1) and gross average (50.9, ahead of the Raiders’ Shane Lechler at 50.8), but he also held on every one of David Akers’ field-goal and point-after attempts. Akers set a league record in field-goals made (44), field-goals attempted (52) and points by a kicker (166).
Lee’s been so good with the 49ers that fans of other squads have grown sick and tired of watching him pin their favorite team inside the 20-yard-line. Check out this passage from a recent San Francisco 49ers “check in” on Field Gulls, the Seattle Seahawks site on SB Nation:
On special teams, Andy Lee is annoyingly amazing at punting.
And there you have it.
Why a 6-year extension? Why not? Lee’s only 29, and punters are like lefty relievers in baseball — they can be effective past 40. Jeff Feagles made it to the Pro Bowl in 2008, when he was 42. Lechler, who made it to the Pro Bowl last year and was named 1st-Team All-Pro in the three seasons (2008-10) between Lee’s two All-Pro years, was 35 last season. The Oakland punter isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
Raiders fans are no strangers to brilliant punters. Lechler’s stats are better, but Ray Guy is a legend who many consider one of the most egregious Hall of Fame snubs in the history of professional football. For most Niners fans, the kind of field position advantage Lee’s provided for eight seasons (never missing a game, don’t forget***) is a new thing. Guys like Max Runager, Barry Helton, Klaus Wilsmeyer and Tommy Thompson were all serviceable, and that’s all the 49ers needed during their Super Bowl years, but Lee’s combination of distance and accuracy (finishing in the top 10 in punts downed inside the 20 in four of the past five seasons, including a record-setting 42 in 2007) makes him the best punter in 49ers history.
***Jim Harbaugh was asked about Lee’s extension after Wednesday’s practice, and here’s what he said (emphasis mine): ”Sometimes it’s underestimated probably, to be honest with you. Andy is one of those guys that wins games for our football team. And it’s great to see guys that play all the games, play all 16, 17, 18 games and help our football team win games, get rewarded with a new contract. So, we’re all really excited and happy for Andy about that. And selfishly for ourselves we’re happy and excited that Andy Lee will be with us for the next six years.”
The 49ers are currently building a franchise Hall of Fame in Santa Clara? Might as well get a head start on the “Andy Lee Exhibit” now.
Perhaps the best thing to come out of the Erickson/Nolan/Singletary years is Lee, who has five of the 49ers’ top seven seasons in terms of total punts, including seasons Nos. 1, 2 and 3. Lee also punted more often than anyone in the NFL in 2005, 2007 and 2009. That, along with conditioning and skills honed in practice, has led to a punter whose total average (not net) has steadily increased from 41.6 yards per punt in each of his first two seasons to 50.9 in 2011.
For a few years, the 49ers’ biggest (only?) bright spot when they had the ball was the guy booting it back to the other team. While the defense is now outstanding and the offense is gradually improving, Lee (along with very few turnovers on offense) was a huge reason why the 49ers led the NFL in average starting field position for their opponents in 2011. Now that the rest of the team has risen to Lee’s lofty standards, it’s nice that the 49ers rewarded Lee. Pretty smart, too.