Is Bill LaFleur ready to produce as an NFL punter?

We thought the 49ers were taking a chance last week when they named rookie Jeff Chandler as their kicker. So how do you categorize their latest move of bringing in Bill LaFleur as their punter? With the way Jason Baker was performing lately, LaFleur might not hurt. But can he help? Instead of hiring an established veteran to replace a struggling Baker, the Niners signed a punter who never has kicked in an NFL game.

So now their struggling special teams will finish the season with a kicker and punter who have exactly one game of NFL experience between them.

 

None of that experience belongs to LaFleur, who practiced with the team for the first time on Wednesday after being signed the day before off the San Diego Chargers' practice squad.

 

Baker had to go because he was regressing on a weekly basis. But the Niners took a very real chance they won't get any better at the position by signing a guy whose only experience in NFL games has been in the preseason with New Orleans and San Diego.

 

LaFleur has two full seasons of experience in NFL Europe, but let's face it, he didn't exactly tear it up as a punter there. He had a 38.7 average on 44 punts for Barcelona in 2000, then a 39.6 average on 56 punts for Barcelona this past spring.

 

Those averages would put LaFleur near the bottom of the NFL rankings today - even below Baker's 40.2 average. Why would anybody expect him to do better now that he's stepping up to the top level of competition the game has to offer?

 

The Niners and LaFleur say not to focus on LaFleur's numbers in NFL Europe, that they were influenced by playing in spring-time weather amid typically mountainous conditions. And surely, the team needed to make a change - any change - with Baker, whose 32.0 net average was the second-worst in the NFL.

 

But, when talking to coach Steve Mariucci and special teams coach Bruce DeHaven on Wednesday, they made it sound like the top reason they selected LaFleur was because he had been kicking in practice on a daily basis with another team.

 

Hello? Perhaps LaFleur was showing lots of potential in those practices, and the Niners surely have had their eye on this guy for some time. But there's certainly some leadfoots out there with an established track record of booming punts, and to think the team would stay away from them simply because they haven't been kicking every day in a structured environment doesn't seem to make much sense.

 

Veteran punters can get ready in a week. The Niners decided to go with an untested prospect who has been getting ready all year. We'd feel a lot better about this move if the new guy had some better credentials to back him up. For now, like a lot of other people, we're left wondering: Who, exactly, is Bill Lafleur, and is he ready to produce as the 49ers' punter?

 

He'd better be, or else the Niners are back where they started. Or worse.

 


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