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The NFL doesn’t know how to punt, or the case against the Packers drafting JK Scott

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Paul Noonan discusses what the NFL gets wrong about how and when to punt and why the Packers’ 5th-round pick was a mistake even if JK Scott is good at what he does.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I shouldn’t care this much about a 5th round (172nd overall) pick, but the Green Bay Packers nabbed the electric Aaron Jones with the 182nd pick in last year’s draft. Spending any capital on a punter, as the Packers did with that pick on JK Scott, really grinds my gears. It’s not just the fact that punters are freely available and it’s not just that they have a decent-seeming punter on a rookie deal already in Justin Vogel. It’s that much of the NFL has the entire concept of punting all wrong.

The Finesse Punter

Bryan Fyre is football analyst who writes at Grid FE, and he’s done some excellent work on examining the data on when punts are wise and when they are foolish. As it turns out, punters who can pin their opponent inside the 20 and possess elite hang time are just the worst. The reason they are the worst can best be explained by this chart, created by Frye:

The chart shows you the average EPA (expected points added) when punting from various spots on the field. You will notice that when you punt from your opponent’s side of the field you are making a bad decision, and you will be giving away points. It’s almost always a smart idea to go for it or attempt a field goal on fourth down in this area. And if you happen to be the Green Bay Packers with an all-time great quarterback it’s smart to be even more aggressive than an average team both because you are more likely to convert and because Rodgers can compensate for a failure to convert by putting up points on subsequent drives.

The entire point of what I’ll call a “finesse punter” is to excel at this sub-optimal play, and if your finesse punter is not strong enough to flip the field when the team is stuck in their own territory, that punter will always provide negative value. While the finer points of punting may please coaching staffs and special teams aficionados, they’re often performed in service of a poor decision, much like bunting in baseball.

Please note that this “bad result” isn’t necessarily the punter’s fault. Frye points this out in a subsequent tweet:

Butler could not have executed better. He was just asked to perform a stupid task, and so even though his performance was excellent, it was still a bad play. Because it’s dumb to engage in finesse punting at all, by EPA the most valuable punters are almost always the guys with huge legs.

The RamsJohnny Hekker is apparently one of the greatest punters ever, absolutely dominating by EPA. Hekker combines a huge leg with the ability to limit returns (as well as finesse skills), and in doing so he’s actually more valuable than almost every running back. The huge-legged Marquette King is a distant second, and you won’t find a more powerful punter out there. It’s true that you won’t find Justin Vogel on this list, but punting in Green Bay is very challenging, and EPA is as much about the decisions the coaching staff makes about punting as it is the punting itself.

If the Packers were drafting a Hekker type, the pick might be justified, but that doesn’t seem likely. As Ben Fennell recently pointed out, Scott’s college numbers indicate that he is an excellent finesse punter:

Underscoring Scott’s lack of power is the fact that he was Alabama’s kickoff specialist, and he put the ball in the end zone less frequently than Mason Crosby. Crosby isn’t particularly strong on kickoffs himself, and while kicking and punting are very different animals, Scott didn’t exactly boom a ton of punts, especially last year.

Fennell points out that part of this is probably schematic, as Alabama possesses an elite coverage unit, but even if he’s slightly stronger than he showed in college it’s possible that the Packers use him in a similar, inefficient way. Moreover, it’s very unlikely that they are getting a Hekker/King type.

Vogel and Holding

There were some whispers that Justin Vogel’s holding was sub-par last season, but there is not much evidence to support the idea that his holding contributed to poor results in the kicking game. It is much more likely that a series of injuries to the Packers long snappers were to blame, to the extent that there was a problem at all.

The Packers went through a ton of long snappers in 2017, including Taybor Pepper and Derek Hart to fill in for the injured Brett Goode, and based on re-watching Crosby’s misses, I think the snapping was far more to blame than the holding. The Packers took long snapper Hunter Bradley in the 7th to address that problem, and that’s fine as 7th round picks are next to worthless. Crosby did have a down year in terms of his 78.9% field goal percentage, but he also attempted just 19 field goals, and the sample size was small enough that just one additional make would have pushed that up into the range of his career norm at 84.2%. It is entirely possible that random chance was the biggest culprit here.

In any case, drafting a punter because of his ability to hold is silly. Holding is a skill that a person can learn through practice, and while punters do most of the holding in the modern NFL, backup quarterbacks can also take on this responsibility in a pinch. Complaints about Vogel’s holding are almost certainly overblown, and while I don’t think Vogel is an all-time great as a punter, he has outperformed the vast majority of previous Packer punters and he’s on a rookie deal. The position was hardly in crisis.

Go Big Or Go Home

For the Packers, who should be an offense-focused team capable of scoring a ton of points, having a good punter is a bit like having a good running back. The individual player may perform well, but ultimately by succeeding it punishes the team by incentivizing the coaching staff to use Aaron Rodgers less. A 5th-round pick may not be that valuable, but they have, in the past produced Micah Hyde and Corey Linsley, in addition to Aaron Jones.

In Scott, the Packers picked a player who excels at a useless act of football to replace a similar and possibly superior player on a very cheap deal. It was a failure of draft pick valuation, and a failure of understanding value on special teams. The Packers are a team with holes, and they could have used another ball in the lottery instead of a second punter.