Punters are masters in retreat. Tasked with giving the ball to the opposing team in the hopes of a defensive stop and living to fight another day, they occupy a unique niche on a football team. While punting statistics are often misunderstood, there are statistics that can help to measure the impact of punters more accurately. Chuck Zodda breaks down some of the key numbers from the first two weeks of NFL action.
While traditional punting metrics such as gross punting average and net punting average are bandied about as people talk about the best punters in the league, those stats are often inaccurate representations of the true strength of punters. They are affected by field position and the ability of the coverage team, often creating additional confusion, rather than providing any real answers.
Two statistics that are important to track throughout the season are hang time and target distance punted (TDP). Hang time helps to identify whether a punter is providing enough time for the coverage unit to get downfield, with the typical measurement being that one-tenth of a second is required for each yard a punt travels downfield. Longer hang times are more likely to result in fair catches, as the coverage unit has more time to track the returner before the ball is caught. Shorter hang times result in the classic outkicking your coverage problem, where a long punt with little hang creates gaps in coverage for a punt unit.
TDP, on the other hand, is a metric developed to account for field position, such that punters are not punished for shorter punts when they are closer to an opponent’s end zone. Gross and net numbers can be affected by this issue, but TDP can be used to resolve the problem by identifying the proper target distance in any situation.
The leaders in the clubhouse for hang time at the end of Week 2 are Bryan Anger of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chris Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, clocking in at 4.92 and 4.91 seconds of hang time on average, respectively. The NFL mark for the season currently stands at 4.50 seconds of hang, meaning Anger and Jones are averaging more than four-tenths of a second in additional hang time on each kick. Keep in mind that hang time reflects a punter’s ability to allow a coverage unit to get downfield, not the performance of that unit. The Buccaneers have allowed just four returns out of 17 punts, with opponents averaging 9.3 yards per return. However, the Cowboys have given up four returns on just six kicks, with the average return going for 14 yards. The use of hang time is critical in separating issues with the punter from issues with the coverage team, and this is a perfect illustration of how traditional punting statistics would not be able to identify the location of the problem.
The bottom of the leaderboard here features Kevin Huber of the Cincinnati Bengals and Jon Ryan of the Seattle Seahawks, with average hang times of 3.98 and 4.2 seconds, respectively. Huber is the only player in the league with an average hang of less than four seconds, and it is largely caused by having three shanks out of 13 kicks, which is a significant percentage by NFL standards. These kicks traveled just 30, 32, and 43 yards from inside Bengals territory, meaning that although there was no return, they still created issues from a field position standpoint. Ryan, on the other hand, has simply displayed a weaker leg than in previous years. His 2015 average hang was 4.42 seconds, and he has not seen a shanked kick to this point in the season. Rather, he has been consistently in the 4.1 to 4.3-second range thus far, underperforming his talent level. Ryan will likely recover as the season goes on, but it has been a strange start to the year for one of the NFL’s upper-echelon punters.
Going the Distance
TDP can be a volatile statistic at this point in the season, as one booming punt or one shank can have an outsized impact on a small sample. Nonetheless, it does give a representation of who has had the best distance control over the first two weeks. Sam Martin of the Detroit Lions has the best TDP to this point, covering 112% of his target distance in the Lions first two games. Brad Nortman of the Jacksonville Jaguars finds himself in second place at 109%, with newly-acquired Andy Lee of the Carolina Panthers tied for third place with Marquette King of the Oakland Raiders at 108%.
The 32nd-ranked punter by TDP right now is a strange one to see in this spot, with Ryan Allen of the New England Patriots occupying the bottom spot with TDP of just 84%. Allen’s first two seasons featured issues with consistency, but he appeared to put them behind him last year, as he put together a tremendous performance in terms of distance control and hang time. This year has been a return to inconsistency thus far, and it shows in the numbers. Joining Allen near the bottom are rookie punters Riley Dixon of the Denver Broncos, and Drew Kaser of the San Diego Chargers, with TDP of 89% and 85%, respectively. Dixon has simply been unable to show a strong leg on a consistent basis, while Kaser finds himself here because of three shanks thus far, including a 17-yarder from the Chargers’ 25-yard line that is far and away the worst punt of the year thus far, with just 35% TDP.
It is far too early to use these numbers to make any predictions, but they give a snapshot of punters through the first two weeks of the season. The puzzling performances of Ryan and Allen thus far raise some questions, and the growth of King is a major story as well, but we likely need several more weeks of data before we begin to see a picture of the true talent levels of these punters.
NFL Punters Through Week 2
Punter Hang-Time TDP Punter Hang-Time TDP