By MICHAEL FAIRLIE //
The typically most overlooked aspect of an NFL club is the special teams unit, which is also one of the most crucial parts of a team. More often than not, field position plays a major role in the outcome of games. The simple fact is that the team that scores the most points wins the game. With that concept in mind, it goes without saying that giving your opponent a longer field to conquer leads to more wins. That is especially true when you can make that field longer than 80 yards by stopping a kick returner inside the 20 or strategically placing a punt out of bounds inside the 20.
Legendary NFL Hall of Fame Coach, Bill Parcells, who knows a thing or two about achieving victory, always talked about winning the field position game and placed a great emphasis on it when he built his teams. He carefully studied statistical research which demonstrated that offensive drives on a long field (80 or more yards) only lead to a touchdown 16 percent of the time. Converting yards to points was at the heart of his approach and over the course of a game field position can play a key role in how many points a team racks up.
After a disappointing 2015 campaign on special teams, which saw the Jets finish 32nd in net punting, 26th in kick return average and 14th in punt returning, it was necessary to make a major change. The team also had the third highest punt return yards against average. In addition, they surrendered four touchdowns on special teams, including two on punt returns as well as one on a blocked punt and one on a kickoff return fumble. Simply put, the special teams unit killed the Jets in 2015, as it has for almost the entire Post-Westhoff era.
In order to turn things around, Head Coach Todd Bowles decided it was time to put Bobby April, the architect of the group, on the chopping block, and rebuild the unit from the top down. Now that the Jets have hired Brant Boyer to run the show, addressing the glaring need of replacing April as Special Teams Coach after a season to forget by the unit, it is time to look at further solidifying the group with the addition of a competent punter.
With a net average of 36.5 yards per punt in 2015, the wildly inconsistent Ryan Quigley should be on his way out the door. The guy has had more shanks in his three years with the Jets than inmates have at San Quentin State Prison. As if he had not already proven to be extremely unreliable, the final nail in the coffin of his Jets career may have been his 21-yard flub against the Bills, setting up a critical touchdown against, in the season finale, that sent the Jets home unfulfilled in a game they had to win.
Although there is not a long list of potential upgrades at the position available in the free agent market, there are a couple of names that stand out as possibilities. The most attractive in the group is the Raiders’ Marquette King, who was one of the league’s best punters in 2015.
He had a net average of 40.7 yards per punt and a career net of 40.4 in his three years in the NFL. While in his senior year at Fort Valley State University, King blasted an 80-yard bomb against Bethune-Cookman, fully displaying his incredible leg strength. King regularly drives footballs into orbit, frequently recording a hang time of over 5 seconds.
UPDATE 3/1/2016: Marquette King is no longer a possibility as it was reported yesterday (2/29/2016) by NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport that King signed a 5-year extension with the Raiders for $16.5 million, with $5.125 million fully guaranteed. That contract would have been too rich for the Jets anyway, so it is on to the next.
After King, there is not much to write home about as far as the 2016 free agent class of punters. Shane Lechler, who is an all-time great punter, has clearly been on the decline the past couple of years and will turn 40 prior to next season. He had 10 touchbacks for the second year in a row and his 24 punts inside the 20 were his fewest as a Texan. It is no given that Lechler will even continue his career at this point, and even if he does I am not sure how much he has left in the tank.
Also swimming in the shallow end of the unremarkable free agent pool of punters is Bryan Anger, a 3rd round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012. He has yet to live up to expectations in his four seasons in the league, averaging 39.5 net yards per punt in 2015, not even cracking the Top 20 in net average. If the Jets are looking to continue on with inconsistency from the punter position, Bryan Anger just might be the guy they seek.
Since they are working with a rather unimpressive crop of free agents, with the exception of Marquette King, the Jets may have to look towards the NFL Draft to find a new punter. The best of the bunch available in the upcoming draft is Utah’s Tom Hackett, who is being projected to go in the 4th or 5th round, which is rather high for a punter. Depending on how much emphasis you want to place on finding a punter, he may be worth the pick. The 2015 season was the second straight year that Hackett won the Ray Guy Award, which goes to the nation’s top punter. The Australian-born punter averaged a career-best 47.8 yards in his senior year, including a long punt of 76 yards.
The only other noteworthy name on the list of draft prospects is Texas A&M’s Drew Kaser, who averaged 47.5 yards per punt with a long of 71 yards. In his junior year, Kaser averaged 44 yards per punt, including a long of 60. He also booted over 10 punts of more than 50 yards in 2014. With an overall average of 46.2 yards per punt in college, Kaser is expected to be chosen anywhere between the 6th round and as an undrafted free agent.
Although easier said than done, especially given the small list of dynamic punters that will be there for the taking, the Jets need to do what they can to address this need. Bringing back Quigley for a fourth season is an option, but one that is most likely to produce more of the same, unless Brant Boyer can somehow miraculously transform the unpredictable punter into Pat McAfee. With the help of Boyer, McAfee had his two best seasons the last two years, including a 41.7 net average and 28 punts inside the 20 in 2015. Regardless of what decision they make at punter, let’s hope that new Special Teams Coach Brant Boyer can bring out the best in them.