Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch watched more video to scout punters this offseason than they ever had before.
“It was painful,” the 49ers coach joked after the team made its final pick of the NFL draft Saturday.
The reconnaissance was necessary. San Francisco decided not to bring back incumbent Bradley Pinion, who signed a four-year, $11 million deal with Tampa Bay last month, leaving 49ers with a void at a critical spot.
So they used a fourth-round pick on Utah’s Mitch Wishnowsky, which quickly became their most polarizing selection of their eight-man draft class. Most NFL punters go undrafted – and often the best ones are taken in Round 5, which is where the 49ers found Pinion in 2015.
“You’d love to do it in the seventh, but promise you we wouldn’t have gotten him if we tried to do it in the fifth,” Shanahan said.
The 49ers thought Wishnowsky was easily the best punter available in the draft and one worth taking rather than addressing their secondary or offensive line, where they had arguably more pressing needs. He averaged 45.7 yards per punt in college and was the first punter in history to be nominated for the Ray Guy Award – given to the nation’s best punter – three times. He won it in 2016.
“Hopefully, he’s the long-term answer, we’re talking like a 10-year guy,” said Lynch, the 49ers’ general manager. “He checks all the boxes in terms of what you want from a punter. He has a huge leg. ... (Special teams coach Tim) Hightower tells us he’s got all the clubs you need in the bag. He’s got different styles, which is kind of a new thing in punting, different spins.”
Wishnowsky was one of the prospects covered by area scout Reggie Cobb, who passed away from a sudden heart attack April 20, less than a week before the draft began. Cobb was responsible for the West region and also played a role in the team’s decision to tap Stanford tight end Kaden Smith in Round 6. The team kept his seat in the John McVay draft room open and covered his chair in a jersey with his name on it.
The 49ers sent a contingent of coaches and scouts for hold a private workout for Wishnowsky in Utah leading up to the draft. That meeting was set up by Cobb.
“Reggie was very meticulous into how he set that visit,” Lynch said. “Hightower said that story upstairs for everyone (in the draft room) ... we talked about Reggie’s imprint on this draft, there’s two guys that were his guys. That makes us happy.”
But the pick wasn’t nearly as popular outside team headquarters. Fans on Twitter expressed their discontent noting the team had other areas that could use reinforcements, namely their secondary which struggled throughout 2018.
“If there are guys there who think are better than the guys you have, and that makes more sense than another position, then it’s an easy decision,” Shanahan said.
Fans were hoping the team would add a cornerback or safety after the team set a record in 2018 for the fewest takeaways in a season with seven. But Shanahan is counting on his incumbent players, including a number of draftees from the last two years, to develop. Additionally, free agent Jason Verrett is expected to have a prominent role if he can remain healthy after dealing with numerous injuries since entering the league in 2016.
“You look at our secondary now. It’s not the easiest thing in the world, draft a guy who could just beat out Richard Sherman, Jason Verrett, Ahkello (Witherspoon), Tarvarius Moore. Those aren’t easy things.”
The 49ers drafted Nick Bosa at No. 2 overall Thursday to fortify their pass rush opposite newcomer Dee Ford and tackle DeForest Buckner. They took receivers Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd on Day 2 to fill out the receiving corps. Wishnowsky was San Francisco’s first selection of Day 3 after the team traded back for more picks in Round 6.
▪ The team traded away veteran pass rusher and special teams standout Dekoda Watson to the Denver Broncos, along with a sixth-round pick, for a pick in Round 5, No. 148 overall.
The 49ers used it on Arkansas linebacker Dre Greenlaw, who was significantly higher on their board than where he was selected. Greenlaw was a four-year starter for the Razorbacks who was named a team captain as a senior. He hadn’t played special teams in college because he was starting, but the team projected him to be a valuable special teams player based on his traits.
Lynch said the selection of Greenlaw wasn’t influenced by Kwon Alexander’s rehab from a torn ACL suffered last season. Greenlaw is expected to back up at the team’s “stack” linebacker spots behind Alexander, Fred Warner, Elijah Lee and David Mayo.
▪ The 49ers don’t seem concerned that Smith (6-foot-5, 252 pounds), the Stanford tight end, posted the slowest 40-yard time among the position (4.92) at the combine.
Lynch believes he can still contribute in the passing game and as a blocking tight end after playing in a pro-style offense with Stanford. Smith could be in line for a prominent role with Garrett Celek entering the final year of his contract.
“If your speed isn’t great, I’m not going to send you on a bunch of speed routes,” Shanahan said.
Added Lynch: “The one thing that’s always struck me with Kaden, he makes big plays at big moments. A lot of contested catches.”
▪ The 49ers rounded out their draft class with two more picks in the sixth round: Vanderbilt tackle Justin Skule and Virginia cornerback Tim Harris.
Skule (6-6, 318) started the final 40 games of his career, including his senior season at left tackle, and will compete with Shon Coleman to be the backup “swing” tackle behind Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey.
“Maybe not the total prototypical tackle that will go early in the draft like you see a lot,” Shanahan said. “You look at the end, who has a chance to make it in this league and the game is not too big for him? He has the ability to make it and, to me, he’s got as good of a mindset on what’s inside of him as anybody out there.”
Harris fell in the draft likely because of a lengthy injury history that included taking medical red-shirt seasons in 2016 and 2017 due to shoulder and wrist injuries.
But the 49ers believe he fits what they’re looking for in cornerbacks. He has the height (6-2) and length (31 7/8-inch arms) typical for coordinator Robert Saleh’s scheme that relies heavily on Cover 3.
“Tim is another guy we brought in here, got comfortable with the person, loved the talent, and we jumped at it,” Lynch said.