Michael Dickson and the Seahawks Punting Problem
NFL Offseason - Seattle Seahawks punter Michael Dickson has a problem. He's one of the best players in the NFL at his position but his statistics look rather ordinary. That's because his team forces him to punt in some really terrible situations.
Dickson grossed 46.9 yards per punt in 2021, finishing a pedestrian 12th in the rankings. He netted 41.7 yards per punt, and the Seahawks finished third in the NFL in punt value according to our ratings, so Dickson was clearly offering something that the average punter does not. Yet Dickson probably has the strongest leg in the league. Why didn't he gross 50 yards per punt?
The answer comes down to field position. The Seahawks punt from the wrong side of midfield waaayyyyy too often.
As you probably know, when kicking from around his own 25-yard line, a punter can let 'er rip and launch the ball as far as he can. (We're using the line of scrimmage, not where the punter stands, throughout this article.) When punting near midfield, however, the punter is supposed to grab the chipping wedge from his golf bag and deliver a shorter, higher-hangtime kick that lands somewhere inside the 20-yard line.
Two other obvious points: someone tasked with frequently pooching punts on purpose because he's near midfield is going to have a reduced yards-per-punt figure, and punting near midfield is almost always a suboptimal strategy in the modern NFL.
With that out of the way, here are the players who punted most often from opponent's territory in 2021. We're counting the 50-yard line as opponents' territory for simplicity's sake.
|Most Punts from Opponent's Territory|
My favorite statistic in the list above is Riley Dixon's six touchbacks. Joe Judge touted himself as heaven's gift to special teams. He kicked almost compulsively in fourth-and-short go-for-it situations. He did loopy stuff like run the units onto the field at the last moment in an effort to gain the tiniest field position advantage. Then his punter and gunners just let the ball squirt into the end zone 37.5% of the time. Enjoy your new quarterback coach, Mac Jones!
But back to Dickson. His 21 punts from opponent's territory were the highest total in the NFL since 2018. There has been an explosion of fourth-down aggressiveness in recent years. Most teams only punt about 10 times per year on the short side of midfield, mostly in fourth-and-15-from-the-48 situations. The Seahawks made Dickson punt in these circumstances about twice as often as average. That impacted both his gross figures (about a dozen more short-on-purpose kicks than the typical punter) and his net (more fair catches and kicks out of bounds or downed).
Pete Carroll had the lowest Aggressiveness Index in the NFL on fourth downs in 2021. That shouldn't be surprising, as he's an aging, defensive-oriented coach. But there was something else at work last season: the Seahawks had a knack for placing themselves behind the 8-ball once they crossed midfield.
- Dickson punted on fourth-and-21 from the Titans 48-yard line in Week 2.
- He punted on fourth-and-21 from the Bears 41 in Week 16.
- He punted on fourth-and-18 from midfield against the Texans in Week 14.
- How about fourth-and-16 from the Cardinals 47 in Week 11?
- Would you believe fourth-and-14 from the Steelers 39 in the fourth quarter of a tie game in Week 7?
There are others, but you get the point. In fact, most of Carroll's play-it-safe punts on fourth-and-short, the decisions that ding his Aggressiveness Index, occurred around the Seahawks' 35-yard line. If the Seahawks punted on the short side of midfield in 2021, it was fourth-and-at-least-3.
The Seahawks' punting problem was as much an offensive execution problem as an aggressiveness issue. In Week 2, for example, the Seahawks drove to the Titans 41-yard line, then got pushed backward by two Russell Wilson sacks and a false start. The Seahawks reached the Bears 30-yard line late in the fourth quarter while nursing a seven-point lead, only to suffer a holding penalty and a completed pass for a loss that knocked them out of game-icing field goal range. In the Week 7 Sunday night loss to the Steelers (a game shown on a continuous loop in the lobby to hell), the Seahawks recovered a fumble at the Steelers 35, but a holding penalty and a completion for a loss of four pushed them back to the 39-yard line. Carroll opted for a punt instead of a long field goal, and Dickson served up a touchback.
The Seahawks offense was built almost exclusively around Russell Wilson heroics for years. Last year, Wilson produced fewer heroics and was injured for a while. And even at his peak, Wilson had a habit of trying to do too much when the Seahawks entered field goal range, resulting in sacks or holding penalties by his perennially pathetic offensive lines.
Wilson is gone this year, replaced by the comic stylings of Drew Lock and Geno Smith. Carroll will still be making the fourth-down decisions. Offensive coordinator Shane Waldron's "do stupid things faster and with more energy" system is back. The Seahawks will finish in the top five in the NFL in three-and-outs in 2022 (they finished seventh in 2021) and their time-of-possession will be measured in hummingbird heartbeats (they finished last in 2021).
What does that mean for Dickson? The single-season record for punts of 114 is shared by Bob Parsons (Bears, 1981) and Chad Stanley (Texans, 2002). It's probably out of reach for a modern punter, even with a 17-game season: not even Carroll punts on fourth-and-inches the way coaches did a decade ago. But Dickson could be the first punter since Bradley Pinion of the 49ers in 2016 to reach 100 punts. The good news is that his gross average is likely to go up, because the Seahawks will be much more likely to stall at their own 25 than approach midfield.
Of course, we are really talking about the Seahawks, using Dickson's statistics to illustrate how bad they could be in 2022. The Seahawks over-under for wins is set at 5.5, with the under at +120 and the over -140. Our DVOA-based projection methods, based upon thousands of simulations, are too central tendency-driven to allow us to recommend really low unders or really high overs.
But golly, it's gonna be hard to find that sixth win on the Seahawks schedule in 2022.
The Patriots-ization of A.J. Cole
With all due respect to Michael Dickson, the NFL's best punter right now may be A.J. Cole of the Las Vegas Raiders, who earned his first All-Pro selection and led the league with 50.0 gross yards per punt in 2021.
A great punter should be able to flip field position, launching a punt from his own territory that pins the opponent deep in theirs. That's precisely what Cole does. Cole led the NFL with 55.4 gross yards per punt from inside his own 35-yard line. That's the highest figure in the Sports Info Solutions database, dating back to 2015! Cole also dropped eight punts inside the 20 from inside the Raiders' 35-yard line, which tied for second in the NFL behind Cameron Johnston of the Texans, who punted about a zillion times.
Here are the top 10 punters in gross average from inside their own 35-yard line in 2021:
|Punts From Within Own 35-Yard Line|
Jordan Berry of the Vikings and Logan Cooke of the Jaguars also launched eight punts inside the 20 in these situations, though each punted more often from inside their own 35 than Cole. As you can see, Dickson fares very well in this category. Bryan Anger, a top-notch punter by any standard, led the league in net average, thanks to his lofty hangtime and to Cowboys coverage units led by players like C.J. Goodwin and Noah Brown.
The net figures above are mostly clumped around 46.0 yards per punt, which may give the impression that there's no real difference among punters. Keep in mind that you are looking at the league leaders. At the bottom of the rankings:
- Philadelphia Eagles punter Arryn Siposs netted just 38.1 yards per punt while grossing just 44.8 yards from inside his own 35-yard line.
- Buffalo Bills punter Matt Haack netted just 39.1 yards per punt while grossing just 41.8 yards per punt in these situations.
- Los Angeles Chargers punter Ty Long grossed a respectable 48.3 yards per punt but netted just 39.2.
A difference of 6 or 7 net yards per play across 30 or 40 punts absolutely matters. That's why the Bills drafted "Punt God" Matt Araiza of San Diego State to compete with Haack. The Chargers, who are addicted to special teams drama, have turned to former Packers/Jaguars castoff JK Scott. The Eagles never got around to replacing Siposs, though they should have. More on all three in a bit.
Cole's gross yards per punt in these situations was nearly 3 yards higher than any other punter in the NFL in 2021, yet he ranked just fourth in net yards. Cole himself may need to sacrifice a yard or two for a tenth of a second of hang time, but when a punter "outkicks the coverage," it's nearly always the coverage's fault. The Raiders allowed 12.2 yards per punt return in 2021, in part because their coverage teams were lacking in quality gunners beyond Dallin Leavitt and, well, Cole himself:
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) November 15, 2021
If there's one thing every Belichick Buddy coach takes with them away from Foxborough, it's the need to emphasize special teams. Heck, that's literally the only thing Joe Judge took away with him. Josh McDaniels has quietly assembled the Special Teams Avengers for the Raiders this offseason in an effort to get the sort of field position edge that the Patriots have used as a secret weapon for years. Mack Hollins is essentially a Mathew Slater wannabe. Brandon Bolden arrives from the Patriots to play the special teams role Brandon Bolden played for the Patriots. Micah Kiser was a special teams ace for the Rams and Broncos. Darius Phillips was an all-purpose special teamer and return man for the Bengals. All of these veterans are likely to make the Raiders roster, because there are plenty of failed Mike Mayock draft picks and Jon Gruden experiments to replace.
Raiders opponents started their average drive on the 26.3-yard line last year,the third-worst field position in the NFL. That field position advantage took pressure off a weak defense and made a difference in close games, helping the Raiders reach the playoffs. If A.J.'s Heroes can force a few more fair catches after 60-yard launches, it could be just the hidden edge the Raiders need to keep pace in the grueling AFC West.
Matt Araiza and Other Punters to Watch
Tired: Analyzing Tua Tagovailoa's deep passes in OTAs.
Wired: Analyzing Matt Araiza's deep punts in OTAs.
Let's check in on what "Punt God" is doing in Buffalo Bills camp:
PUNT *glass shatters* GOD
— Matthew Bové (@Matt_Bove) May 31, 2022
Yep, that's the good stuff. Per Bills reporter Chris Brown, that sucker traveled 78 yards with a hangtime of 4.8 seconds. Hangtime numbers from a reporter's watch should be
taken with a grain of salt ignored, but it's not that hard to figure out yardage when someone punts from the 25-yard line into the end zone.
Meanwhile, the Buffalo Fanatics website published a rather technical article all about Araiza's muscular thighs. It's … odd.
Forgive Bills fans, who don't have many other camp battles to worry about and don't really know how to react now that their team receives actual respect from the national media, for obsessing over a rookie punter.
Meanwhile, in Baltimore, recently retired veteran Sam Koch has decided to stick around as a coach and mentor to fourth-round pick Jordan Stout. "We're going to try to make him the next best punter of the Ravens and do everything we can to make him the best punter in the league," Koch said recently.
Stout was the punter, kicker, and kickoff specialist for Penn State in 2021. He also has experience holding for field goals; Koch was Justin Tucker's holder for the future Hall of Fame kicker's entire career.
Unfortunately, we have not yet seen any videos of 70-plus-yard punts or anatomical dissertations of Stout's body parts just yet, largely because Lamar Jackson's absence from OTAs gives the Ravens press corps something juicier to sink their teeth into.
The Ravens drafted Stout because he was a more-or-less finished product as a specialist. The Bills drafted Araiza because HIS NICKNAME IS PUNT GOD C'MON WHAT OTHER REASON DO YOU NEED. The Chicago Bears drafted Trenton Gill because they are tacitly setting Justin Fields up to fail and therefore plan to punt an awful lot in 2022.
Gill, the ACC's all-time leader in yards per punt, will also hold for field goals, as most punters do nowadays. New Bears special teams coordinator Richard Hightower is already tweaking Gill's technique as a holder. "With holding, he taught me something," Gill said during rookie camp, per Gene Chamberlain of BearDigest. "And I was like, 'man, why haven't I been doing this the whole time?' But I'm appreciative of him and what he has brought to me."
Maybe the Bears should bring in a veteran like Koch to teach holds. Or better yet, maybe the Bears should have drafted another f*cking receiver so they have a fighting chance of developing Fields.
Lest you think I'm the only NFL writer
reduced to writing about inspired to write about punters in June, Reuben Frank of NBCSports Philadelphia answered a question that really is on the minds of many of the Eagles fans I run into at the farmer's market: Why is Arryn Siposs still here?
Special teams coach Michael Clay, per Frank, acknowledged that Siposs punted well early in the season but collapsed down the stretch. "We've done some things in the offseason, and he's changed his body to be stronger through the core," Clay said. "It's a long 20-game season, so you have to keep your body in tip-top shape."
Clay also noted that Siposs was a reliable holder on field goals. As teams go for it more often on fourth downs, prioritizing field goal reliability over sheer punting talent makes some sense. It should be possible, however, to find someone who can both hold for field goals and not shank multiple punts from his own territory in playoff games.
Our tour of the NFL's most exciting position group ends with the Chargers, the NFL's most lovable special teams disaster artists. Their current punter is JK Scott, who was cut by the Packers late in 2021 training camp, then resurfaced with the Jacksonville Jaguars in December when Logan Cooke went on IR because Urban Meyer bit him or something.
General manager Tom Telesco has said that the Chargers will bring a competitor to camp to challenge Scott. Nicholas Cothrel of Charger Report spotted UCLA's Ben Griffiths at rookie camp, so Griffiths may be that challenger. Griffiths is 30 years old, lists at 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, and played forward for Richmond FC of the Australian Football League before coming to college in the US. He was also drafted by the Edmonton Elks of the CFL, so the Chargers have some competition for Griffiths' services.
We all know that the Chargers' season will end with a blocked punt that knocks them out of the playoffs, probably from their own 15-yard line on fourth-and-25, because that's the only situation that prompts Brandon Staley to punt.
Whether Scott, Griffiths, or the guy the Chargers sign after Scott and Griffiths are lost at sea during a bizarre minicamp parasailing accident is yet to be seen. All we know for sure for now is that punters matter, but the Chargers know what the Seahawks have yet to realize: the key to success in the modern NFL is to make punters matter as little as possible.