Sixth-round draft picks don't get a lot of attention at the time of their selection. That was surely the case in 2004, when sixth-rounder Andy Lee strolled into 49ers training camp in the middle of a three-way battle just to have a job in the NFL.
Lee won the competition and not only did he handle the 49ers punting duties for the next six season, he also set records, including an NFL record 42 punts downed inside the 20 in 2007, the same year he went to the Pro Bowl. But that was just the beginning.
In that same year, Lee set a career best with a 47.3 yard punt average. That wouldn't stand for long as he broke that record just one year later, averaging 47.8 yards per punt.
This year, he's on pace to break his own career best once again, averaging 48.3 yards per boot.
"I definitely feel like my last three years have been pretty consistent," the humble punter said. "I've been hitting the ball well and our coverage teams have been doing a great job. I think I've gotten into a comfort zone the last three years. I think I've hit the ball pretty well."
Through 13 weeks Lee ranks first in the NFC in both punting average (48.3) and net average (41.8). He attributes his improvement to increased confidence in pressure situations.
"Knowing exactly what to expect in each situation and being able to go out with a clear head helps," Lee said. "No matter what situation you have, more than likely, you've had it before. It seems easier to go out and not have to worry about everything, you just do it. You're not nervous or trying to do something different. You just know and go out and do your job, and it's a little easier that way."
Throughout his career, Lee has not only fared well in some of the worst weather conditions, he's also been at his best against the top return men in the league. Take his Week 7 performance, when the 49ers held the Houston Texans electrifying punt retuner Jacoby Jones (who's averaging 11 yards per return) to just a 5-yard average on five punts.
"I may be a little more cautious when I'm going up against some of the best guys in the league," Lee admitted. "I try not to because I try to approach every punt the same. I go out and give the best kick I can give every single time. I don't want to say I approach them differently, but if anything, I put a little more pressure on myself."
One thing that's helped Lee is having the same core group of specialists around him. Though the faces on the coverage units have changed, Lee has been able to work with the same long snapper every year he's been in the league. Kicker Joe Nedney arrived in Lee's second season.
"You come into work and you know what to expect," Lee said. "You know the routine of most things. It definitely helps having a great long snapper like Brian [Jennings]. I don't have to worry about my job or where the ball is going to be when he snaps it. I know it's going to be catchable and in great position to hit a good punt. Joe's there to calm me down if I do get upset. Just having him there as somebody to talk to, makes me feel better."
It also must make Lee feel good knowing he has great coverage units. While being asked to kick towards the boundaries during the early part of his career, special teams coordinator Al Everest changed that approach and let Lee do what he does best, drive the ball high and deep.
"You have to match him with the coverage and let him do what he does," Everest revealed. "We don't put it all on him which allows him to play relaxed. But his coverage deserves a lot of credit to match what he does. He's a shooter, but you have to give credit where it's due, to Brian and the coverage guys out there busting their tails 50 yards a whack."
Lee has shown he has some precision as well. With 21 punts downed inside the 20-yard line this season, only four of his punts have gone into the end zone for touchbacks.
While Everest refers to his pupil as "different from any other punt I've coached," one thing is for certain, Lee has now placed himself amongst the league's elite.
"I would never say I anticipated this," Lee said. "I've had people tell me I had the abilities. But even now, I still think of myself as a normal guy. I go out, I have fun and I love to punt. I have the best job in the world in my eyes because it's something I love to do."