Much of the focus on the Detroit Lions' special teams struggles in 2012 was directed at the coverage units. However, an area that was just as bad was simply punting the ball. Nick Harris took over in Week 4 for the Lions, and he was just not very good. As a team, the Lions ranked dead last in the NFL in yards per punt, and they were tied for 30th in net average.
Harris is set to become a free agent this offseason, and I'd have to imagine the Lions will look elsewhere given how ugly the stats were in 2012. I just don't see how they can justify bringing Harris back, although he is hoping they will re-sign him. From the Free Press:
"I'm just going to wait and see," Harris said recently. "I don't know if I'll be in the plans for the future. I'd like to be."
"I think I did what they wanted me to do," said Harris, who became the Lions' all-time leader in punts and punt yardage in eight previous seasons. "They didn't ask me to lead the league in gross average. They wanted a control game, to get a lot of fair catches. We settled down the big returns after the early part of the season."
Perhaps the Lions weren't looking for Harris to boom the ball on every punt, but I can't imagine they were thrilled with being at the bottom of the league in punting. Limiting big returns is obviously important, but it'd be nice to have someone at punter who can flip the field. If the offense goes three-and-out to start the game, for example, it'd be nice to not have the other team take over near midfield. Other teams are able to ensure that a three-and-out doesn't put their defense on a short field, but the Lions just didn't seem to have that ability in 2012.
Still don't think the Lions need to make a change at punter? Let's stack up Harris' numbers with some of the Lions' other recent punters (with a special guest appearance from a kicker).
- Nick Harris (13 games in 2012): 67 punts, 41.5 avg., 37.6 net avg.
- Ben Graham (7 games in 2011): 28 punts, 44.1 avg., 38.7 net avg.
- Ryan Donahue (8 games in 2011): 49 punts, 42.7 avg., 35.6 net avg.
- Jason Hanson (1 game in 2012): 3 punts, 39.3 avg., 36.0 net avg.
Okay, so most of those numbers are not all that impressive. To put Harris' stats into a larger context, here's a rundown of his numbers compared to the punters from the first (New Orleans), sixth (Jacksonville) and 17th (Atlanta) ranked punting units in 2012 based on average distance:
- Nick Harris: 67 punts, 41.5 avg., 37.6 net avg. (Lions 32nd in avg., t-30th in net avg.)
- Thomas Morstead: 74 punts, 50.1 avg., 43.2 net avg. (Saints 1st in avg., t-1st in net avg.)
- Bryan Anger: 91 punts, 47.8 avg., 40.8 net avg. (Jaguars 6th in avg., t-6th in net avg.)
- Matt Bosher: 60 punts, 47.5 avg., 40.7 net avg. (Falcons 17th in avg., t-10th in net avg.)
Anger was actually drafted in the third round in 2012 by the Jaguars to take over for Harris, who spent 11 games in 2011 as Jacksonville's punter. Harris' numbers in Jacksonville weren't much better (42.7 avg. and 37.9 net avg.) than in Detroit in 2012, and I think the Lions should strongly consider drafting someone to replace him. I wouldn't go as far as drafting a punter in the third round, but LSU's Brad Wing is someone to keep in mind. He averaged 44.4 and 44.8 yards per punt in 2011 and 2012 at LSU, and he really played a big role in their run to the BCS National Championship in 2011.
Regardless of if they draft someone or not, the Lions need to find a new punter. Given how much they've put into building their offense, you would hope that they're not going three-and-out on a regular basis, but sometimes it happens. I'd rather these three-and-outs not put the defense at a big disadvantage as they did this past season. A few yards less in average may not seem like much, but in terms of field position, it does make a big difference.