The San Francisco 49ers started off the final day of the NFL Draft on Saturday with a trade, and a punter and a bit of deja vus.
San Francisco moved down in the fourth round through a trade with the Cincinnati Bengals, going from pick 104 to 110 and adding a pair of sixth-round choices. The 49ers then turned around and sent the fourth of their now-four sixth-round choices (212th overall), along with linebacker Dekoda Watson, to the Dener Broncos for a 2019 fifth-round pick.
In the midst of all of that, they used that No. 110 pick to snag All-American punter Mitch Wishnowsky out of Utah, 55 picks ahead of where they drafted punter Bradley Pinion just four years ago. With just one punter on the roster in Justin Vogel, and a need to replace Pinion as the kickoff man, San Francisco got arguably one of the best college punters in recent memory, and one who just happens to be able to punt with both feet.
“I think [head coach] Kyle and I studied punters more this year than I think we ever will, and hopefully he’s the long-term answer,” said general manager John Lynch. “We’re talking like a 10-year guy. He checks all the boxes in terms of what you want from a punter … We had, we felt like had we not taken him there, he would have been taken, and so we moved back a little, gained some picks, and then took the pick, and we feel really good about it.”
Since 2000, there have only been four punters taken higher than San Francisco picked the 6-foot-2 Australian, who was a three-time Ray Guy Award Finalist (the only one ever) and a 2016 Ray Guy Award winner. He’s the highest-drafted punter since Cal’s Bryan Anger was taken No. 70 overall in 2012.
“You can see a big difference just on tape,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “I think when you get in person, you can feel it a little bit more. Sounds differently. But yeah, you can do a lot of that with the numbers and stuff and I presume with analytics. I didn’t know before, but you could see a difference on tape.”
Shanahan told a tearful Wishnowsky, on a phone call to inform him of the pick, that he had been a target from the beginning.
“I feel like I really got along with coach [special teams coordinator Richard] Hightower and coach [assistant special teams coach Stan] Kwan,” Wishnowsky said of his meeting with the coaches during a personal workout. “I was hoping it would be San Fran, and I think San Fran were about two picks away, and I got a call, and I was like, ‘You are kidding me.’ Unbelievable.”
Wishnowsky, hailing from Perth, Australia, left Aussie Rules Football due to two surgeries on his left shoulder. He became an apprentice glass installer, and just for fun, would play American flag football at a park with some friends to stay active. He began “messing around” with punting.
“Basically, [I] was seen there punting and messing around by a guy called Craig Wilson, who knows Nathan Chapman and John Smith at ProKick Australia, and then a few months later I was out fishing and got a call from John,” Wishnowsky said. “John told me he would change my life, send me to America, all that good stuff. I went home, told my folks that John Smith is going to send me to America, and they thought I was smoking something.”
He handed in his resignation, moved to Melbourne for a year to train and learn how to punt in American football, then came across the Pacific to punt for Santa Barbara City College in 2014 before transferring to Utah.
Wishnowsky was named a three-time All-American and a three-time All-Pac-12 punter, with 62 career punts of 50+ yards (second all-time with the Utes). He replaces Pinion, who the 49ers lost this March to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency, as the 49ers’ likely punter and kickoff man. In 2017, Wishnowsky put 44 of his 65 kickoffs into the end zone, posted a 62.1-yard kickoff average and was 1-of-2 in onside kicks, kicking and recovering an onside kick against Washington. He did not kick off in 2018.
“In the workout I did some kickoffs,” Wishnowsky said. “I was hitting the ball well. But yeah, I mean, they mentioned it’s obviously a weapon, either the kicker or the punter can kick off, but if they’re both good at it, it’s just a plus.”
Earlier this month, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, Wishnowsky produced a 5.5-second hang time on a punt and a 4.6-second mark on a kickoff in a workout. Wishnowsky was reportedly scouted by West scout Reggie Cobb, who passed away suddenly last week.
“Reggie had the west, and Wishnowsky is a guy that Reggie had really scouted hard,” Lynch said. “We sent kind of Hightower, [assistant special teams coach] Stan Kwan and [assistant special teams coach] Michael Clay in there to watch him work out, and Reggie was very meticulous as to how he set that visit. Hightower shared the story upstairs for everyone
Reese’s Senior Bowl Executive Director and NFL Draft analyst Jim Nagy likened Wishnowsky to rookie All-Pro Michael Dickson.
Dickson, another Australian and another former Australian Rules rugby player, averaged 45.3 yards per punt at Texas and was picked 149th in last year’s draft. He averaged 48.2 yards per punt with Seattle, with 28 inside the 20. Dixon, though, never ran a 4.63 40 like Wishnowsky.
In his three years with the Utes, Wishnowsky punted 175 times for 8,004 yards (45.7 ypp) with 67 fair catches, 74 inside the 20 and only three blocked punts, though they came on rugby punts.
The 49ers now have four picks remaining: 148th overall (Round 5), 176th overall (Round 6), 183rd overall (Round 6 from Bengals) and 198th overall (Round 6, from Bengals).
Watson, traded for those picks, appeared in 18 games and registered 10 tackles, 2.0 sacks and one forced fumble since signing with the team as a free agent in 2017. He was particularly helpful on special teams, but, Shanahan said, he and Lynch made up for trading him with special teams coordinator Richard Hightower by picking Wishnowski.
“The fifth round has been pretty good to us, so we really wanted to get up there, and we were looking for trade partners,” Lynch said. “At some point we had had a conversation about Dekoda, thinking that we might go edge, and we had a conversation with Denver, and it led to this, which happened today. We were excited to get up into the fifth round. I think they were excited to have Dekoda in their equation, and we’re excited for that.”