Lee getting paid like one of the best ever

If punters get better with age, you have to wonder how far and how well Andy Lee will be booming the football by the year 2018. The three-time Pro Bowler still will be kicking for the 49ers then after signing a six-year contract extension that will make him one of the highest-paid punters in NFL history, a fitting reward for a guy who's putting up some of the best numbers ever for his position.

Lee's new deal reportedly will pay him more than $3.4 million per year, a big boost over the $1.2 million annual average of his previous six-year deal that was set to expire this season, and money that Lee certainly can live with, even though after a record-setting 2011 season he was pitching for even a more lucrative contract, considering he's only 29 and entering the prime of his career.

Lee has been looking for a new deal since last year, and he certainly gained more bargaining power with his spectacular season last year, which landed the ninth-year veteran on the All-Pro first team and was a major factor in San Francisco's turnaround season that ended with the 49ers taking the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants to overtime in the NFC championship game.

"My performances have been good and we were trying to get something done," Lee said Wednesday afternoon after the Niners' organized team activity practice session. "I think both sides gave a little here and there on this to get this done a year early and give me a contract that I'm happy with and my family's happy with. I think the team is happy with it, too."

Coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke confirmed the organization believes the money that's headed toward Lee's bank account is well-earned and well-spent.

Baalke said the 49ers are "pleased" with the long-term extension as Lee has "established himself as one of the top players in the game at his position," and is a "valued member of our organization and community."

Harbaugh put Lee's value in more hard-line practical terms when the coach was asked how much of an asset Lee is to the team.

"Sometimes it's underestimated probably, to be honest with you," Harbaugh said. "Andy is one of those guys that wins games for our football team."

But never more so than in 2011, when the 49ers won the NFC West title at 13-3 after finishing 6-10 the previous season.

Lee was a major factor in the turnaround with his big leg helping the 49ers consistently win the battle for field position on a weekly basis. Also the holder for record-setting place-kicker David Akers, Lee was one of the key figures on San Francisco's special team units that in 2011 were considered collectively as one of the NFL's strongest units over the past decade.

Lee led the NFL with an average of 50.9 yards per punt – the third-highest average in league history – and set a new NFL standard with a 44.0-yard net average on each of his kicks. Lee also set the 49ers single-game franchise records in both gross punting average (59.6) and net average (54.2) in the season opener against Seattle and dropped 28 punts inside the 20-yard line during the season with only nine touchbacks.

"It's great to see guys that play all the games and help our football team win games get rewarded with a new contract," Harbaugh said. "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."

Lee's deal is for a reported $20.5 million, which compensates him on a level with with Oakland's Shane Lechler, who like Lee has taken punting to a new level in the NFL over the past decade. Lechler signed a four-year, $16 million deal with $9 million guaranteed in 2009, a contract that can be made even richer with incentives. Lechler has the NFL's highest salary for a punter at $3.8 million in 2012.

While Lechler has taken NFL punting standards to new levels, Lee certainly can give him a run for the money with his brilliant performance over the past five years.

Beginning in 2007 – when he set a NFL record with 42 punts inside the 20-yard line – Lee has assembled one of the greatest five-year stretches by a punter. He was named first-team All-Pro that season and earned the first of his three Pro Bowl selections. His final punting average fell below 47 yards just once during that span.

Lee's 45.7-yard career average is a 49ers record and he holds the top five single-season punting averages in team history along with most every other significant franchise punting record.

So how high can Lee go now that his future with the 49ers is secure?

"We'll go for 53," Lee said, kidding – sort of – about the punting average for which he now will aim.

"I don't know (how high he can go)," Lee continued. "All I can do is go out and try to get better each day and do 100 percent of what effort I can give and just see what happens. I just hope to go out and do what I can do every week in and week out to help this team win."

Which is typical for Lee, who has been doing that for years with the 49ers. Now he has one of the richest deals ever for his craft to show for it.

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