Monday, January 4, 2010

The Value of a Punter

One day after watching their over the hill QB end their season with an appropriate whimper (a terrible duck of an interception)... the Seattle Seahawks busted out the checkbook and gave a six year, $9.1 million extension (with a $1.6 million bonus) to one of their best players.

Was it sensational 2nd year tailback Justin Forsett? Nope. It was this guy:

Much to the chagrin of Seahawks Fan, the player in question was punter Jon Ryan. Granted, Ryan was one of the NFL's best punters with a 46.2 yard average per punt, and his career 45.3 average is good for 5th all time, 4th among active punters. But many associate a punter with low, minimum-level salaries, since after all, he only plays a handful of snaps a game and his primary job is to boot the ball 40 yards downfield on 4th and long and go sit down... and perhaps hold for the field goal kicker.

But it turns out in recent years that punter salaries have soared under our noses. According to Sports Illustrated, the average punter pulls in somewhere near $900K per year, while Vikings punter Chris Kluwe makes an astonishing $5 million. Also, the NFL's facing a no-salary-cap 2010, with the average payroll now around $100 million, and the possibility that a new labor agreement could send salaries upward. With Ryan's net pay in the $1.5 million range, and in light of those factoids, Ryan's new salary doesn't seem all that bad.

But does Jon Ryan produce that kind of value? Does a punter justify that kind of money? According to Football Outsiders, the Seahawks punting unit was good for a net average of 0.0 points, aka neither adding nor subtracting to the opposing offense's typical chances of scoring. But granted, a) that's better than the 11 NFL teams whose punting units finished with negative points, meaning the Seahawks were around average. And b) that rating includes the performance of the Seahawks punt coverage unit, so it's possible that Ryan's punting was good while the Seahawks' punt coverage was bad (and given how the Hawks tackled overall this season, that's a distinct possibility).

While Ryan's 46.2 average was 8th best in the NFL, his 38.7 net average was 15th. His 28 kicks inside the 20 were 8th most, against 9 touchbacks, tied for 6th most... meaning he successfully cornered 75% of his short field punts... not bad but not great.

To compare, Cards punter Ben Graham's and Cowboys punter Mat McBriar's 93% rates are great, as is Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt's 87%. Ryan is clearly a distance punter, and those punters have value: Shane Lechler of the Raiders, considered without a doubt the best punter of this era, has a 71% corner rate, and the Raiders don't care because he averages 51 yards a kick. The average punter gets about 44 yards a kick, so Ryan's 46+ yards adds value (the 38.7 yard net is right around the league average).

The distance punter's value comes in helping you regain field position after stalling deep in your own territory. That he can't pin a team inside their own 20 as much as other guys isn't a big deal: Ideally your team should be scoring points after crossing midfield, and if they don't then the other team's offense is starting with relatively poor field position anyway after you punt it, even if they start at their own 20, since they have to drive the field to score.

Is that worth $1.5 million per? On a 1 to 5 scale, Ryan's value relative to other punters has to be around a 4. I suppose if you factor in that the Lechlers and Kluwes of the world are pulling $3-5 million, and that given the typical career longevity of a punter Ryan is very likely to maintain his level of performance, then locking up Ryan for six years at well below that rate doesn't seem so bad, especially when you consider he's only taking up about 1.7% of the Seahawks payroll and that the likely elimination of the salary cap as well as the likely increase in player salaries with a new labor deal will likely drive up the average salary... which will make Ryan's locked in $1.5 million annual salary through 2015 look better and better the higher they get.

But it still doesn't seem right to most fans, who associate punters with being minimal contributors to the team's fortunes. I suppose it comes down to the value you place on field position... or more so, the value the Seahawks place on Jon Ryan's impact on field position. With a bad offense, a struggling defense and a long way to go before either one can be good again... it's possible that now more than ever the Seahawks need a good punter that will give the defense as much field as possible, while helping offset the poor field position the offense leaves them on three and outs.

When you look at it that way, it may not be the worst way for the Seahawks to use $1.5 million in payroll. Either way, Jon Ryan's here to stay for the next six seasons, and that in itself is certainly not a bad thing.

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