Do punters matter in today’s NFL?

The recent revolution in NFL football that emphasizes offense over all else has changed the outlook on the kicking game. Long-held ideas about time of possession, field position, run the ball and stop the run are going by the wayside. In their place is a new NFL that increasingly values passing and pass defense, explosive plays and quick drives, and going for it on fourth down.

The New York Giants parted ways this off-season with their punter of the past few years, Riley Dixon. Dixon performed well when he first came to the Giants, but his punting declined thereafter. With a $2.9M per year contract, according to Spotrac, Joe Schoen decided that the Giants would be better off replacing him, and Dixon was released. In his place Schoen signed Jamie Gillan, the “Scottish Hammer,” to a $1.065M contract. The question is: Aside from the cap space created, will this switch have any effect on the Giants’ fortunes on the field?

Ranking NFL punters

Here are the 2021 Pro Football Focus rankings of punters with at least 35 punts:

PFF grades punters using an approach similar to what they do for other positions. They try to judge the punter’s performance (distance, proximity to the sideline, ideal “impact point” for an attempt to avoid a touchback) and not the result. So for example a punt that comes down at the 5-yard line but takes an unlucky bounce into the end zone is not graded worse than a punt that comes down at the 1-yard line and has the good luck to stay there.

Gillan and Dixon are Nos. 28 and 29 on the PFF list, with “replacement-level” grades in the low 50s. Only three of the top 10 punters last season were on teams that made the playoffs, and all three were eliminated in the first round. Punters ranked No. 31 and 32 played for two of the best teams in the NFL in 2021.

So at some level, punters do not make a big difference. Corey Bojorquez’s blocked punt in the playoffs was a crucial factor in Green Bay losing to San Francisco, but that was his only blocked punt of the season; for the season as a whole he was middle of the pack. And the punt blocking in front of him on that play may not have been stellar. Nonetheless, for the 2022 season, Bojorquez is a Cleveland Brown.

The decline of punting as a strategy

Increasingly, NFL teams are going for the first down on fourth down rather than punting, as analytics says is the smart play much of the time when a team is in the opponent’s territory. So we might expect that the most analytics-driven teams are the ones who go for it most often, and that these are usually the most successful teams. Here is a chart courtesy of StatMuse showing the teams that went for it on fourth down the most in 2021:

Actually the majority of the teams that went for it most often were bad, including the Giants – not exactly a highly analytics-driven team – at No. 7. Only the Los Angeles Chargers, led by the ultimate follow-the-analytics head coach Brandon Staley, are high on the list. Eight of the nine teams who went for it the least were playoff teams, including the two Super Bowl teams, the Rams and the Bengals.

If we sort the StatMuse numbers in another way, we can better see what is happening. The league leaders in percentage of successful fourth-down attempts were Baltimore (66.7 percent), Kansas City, Cincinnati, Los Angeles Chargers, New England, Las Vegas, and Tennessee, all but one of them playoff teams. And more importantly, all of them teams with good offenses. The Giants were seventh from the bottom in success rate at 43.3 percent. Losing teams are generally the ones that find themselves in positions where they have to gamble and go for it but don’t have the offensive personnel or coaches to make it work. Winning teams generally face those situations less often but have the offensive skill to fare better when they have to do it.

Viewed in this light, the conservative choices often made by Joe Judge in 2021 may be a bit more defensible – when you have an offensive line that can’t protect the quarterback and can’t move the pile, perhaps you’re better off punting.

An Expected Points Added approach to evaluating punters

Just as for other positions, Expected Points Added (EPA) per play can be calculated for punters to tell us who the best punters in the NFL are. But the usual way of calculating EPA does not work well for punters. EPA uses historical information on down, distance, field position, and game situation (score and time) to determine whether a particular play call and result added to or subtracted from the team’s probability of scoring.

The project Puntalytics explains that many of the factors that go into calculating EPA are out of the punter’s control, For example, any punt on fourth-and-1, no matter how good, is a bad choice statistically compared to going for the first down according to historical results. Such a punt automatically grades as a negative EPA. The punter should not be penalized for the coach’s choice to punt in that situation. Likewise, a punt from the opponent’s 40-yard line that goes 35 yards and is downed at the 5 should not be penalized relative to a punt from one’s own 20 that goes 50 yards. And a punt returned 20 yards may be the punter’s fault, or it may be the punt coverage team’s fault.

Puntalytics attempts to correct for all the factors outside the punter’s control and creates a “punter’s EPA” (pEPA) that isolates just the punter’s performance. Here are the results for 2021:

The detailed rankings differ some from PFF’s list, but overall both methods give a pretty clear picture of who the best and worst punters in the NFL are. For example, by either measure, A.J. Cole of the Las Vegas Raiders had the best season of any punter in 2021, with Dallas’ Bryan Anger and Jacksonville’s Logan Cooke close behind.

For Giants fans, both last year’s punter, Riley Dixon, and this year’s punter, Jamie Gillan (at the moment, anyway), were in the bottom quarter of punters, with little to favor one over the other except for Gillan’s cheaper 2022 cap hit. Their negative pEPA/play means that on average their teams lost points by punting relative to what would have been expected.

How much does a good punter help his team?

The chart above suggests that having the best vs. the worst punter in the NFL makes a difference of about 0.4 points per play. To put that into context, let’s look at the EPA/play for NFL starting quarterbacks in 2021 (data from rbsdm.com):

EPA/play for quarterbacks is positively correlated with completion percentage above expected, and the the league leaders in EPA/play are for the most part the QBs we generally think of as having had the best 2021 season. On the other hand, the difference in EPA/play between the best and worst QBs in 2021 was only about 0.4, the same as for punters. Surely a good punter is not worth as much to his team as a good quarterback?

A slightly different metric has been created by The Philly Cover Corner. It uses the Puntalytics database, but excludes punt plays with a fumble or a penalty. The resulting metric, punter EPA+, is fairly well correlated with the product of punt distance and hang time, two factors we generally associate with a good punt:

This metric has an even larger difference between the best and worst punters (0.6), but no punter has an EPA+ greater than about +0.1, less than half the EPA of the best QBs. On the other hand, most punters have a negative EPA+.

This seems to pass the smell test – a good punter can be an asset, though not nearly as much as a good quarterback is, but a bad punter can have a significant negative impact on a team’s chance of winning. Put another way: In today’s explosive offense-driven NFL, if a punter is not providing a dramatic change in field position, what is lost by giving your opponent’s offense another chance to make big plays against you outweighs what little advantage you get by increasing the distance that opponent has to go to score.

By this metric, Gillan is a slight improvement over Dixon (less negative EPA+). Both are in the lower tier of distance x hang time. The Giants have not directly improved their chance of winning by changing punters, but they have given themselves an extra $2M or so to sign someone who does.

Should draft picks be used on punters?

The bottom line for the Giants is that the punting situation promises to be about the same as it was in 2021, but with less cap space devoted to the position. The Giants could have drafted a punter with one of their 11 draft picks, but they chose not to do so.

The Philly Cover Corner looks at this question also, comparing the Pro Football Reference Approximate Value (AV) for each of 33 punters drafted since 2004 to the average AV for players at each draft position. The results show that it is not until the end of Round 5 that there is value in drafting a punter vs. other positions, but that the value increases from that point through Round 7. The reason is that by Round 7 draftees at most positions are far down the list of rankings at their position, while available punters are among the best in the country for that draft class.

The Giants had four picks in Rounds 5 and 6 and none in Round 7. They could have selected a punter rather than one of the following players: LB Micah McFadden, DT D.J. Davidson, OG Marcus McKethan, and LB Darrian Beavers. Two of the three most highly touted punters in this draft were already gone in Round 4: Jordan Stout (Ravens) and Jake Camarda (Buccaneers). The “Punt God,” Matt Araiza, was not selected until Round 6, pick No. 180, just before the Giants took Darrian Beavers at No. 182. Did Schoen have his eye on Araiza? We’ll never know.

Araiza was selected by Joe Schoen’s former team, the Buffalo Bills. The selection made sense for them since their 2021 punter, Matt Haack, was the lowest or close to the lowest ranked punter in the NFL in 2021, according to the charts above. Araiza will be a fascinating case study, because he turns the distance x hang time formula upside-down by booming amazingly long punts but at a low elevation angle. Whether that will work in the NFL or subject him to an inordinate number of explosive punt returns remains to be seen. He and Jordan Stout, another booming punter but with more conventional elevation angles, will provide good fodder for the question of whether punters matter.

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