A study on punters and the NFL Draft

Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

Should the Detroit Lions spend a draft pick on a punter this year? Let's see what history tells us.

The Detroit Lions were ranked at the very bottom of the NFL in punting last year, making it clear that punter should be on their long list of needs this offseason. In fact, the need for a new punter is so big that the idea of drafting one has been tossed around and hasn't been dismissed as completely unrealistic.

The Lions could definitely use help at punter, but is the draft the best way to address this need? The Lions could always go out and sign a veteran punter with a track record of success in the NFL, and they could also just bring in an undrafted free agent to compete for the job in training camp. Considering the Lions currently only have six draft picks, is a punter really worth one of them? Let's see what the last 20 drafts show us.

Since 1993, there have been 36 punters selected in the NFL Draft. Only once from 1993-2012 was a punter drafted in the second round. There have been five instances of a punter being selected in the third round, five of a punter being selected in the fourth round and six of a punter being selected in the fifth round since 1993. 11 punters were taken in the sixth round from 1993-2012, and seven were selected in the seventh round. One punter, in 1993, was taken in the eighth round. (Yes, there were eight rounds back then.) Based on the last 20 drafts, the average pick for a punter is 162, which is in the fifth round.

Below is a look at the raw data, which shows all of the punters drafted since 1993 and how many years each spent in the NFL, how many years each spent with his original team and how many (if any) AP All-Pro selections each received. (Note: An asterisk denotes that the player is still in the NFL and, in some cases, still with his original team. Also, a season was counted if a player was active for at least one game.)

Year

Player

Round

Pick

Team

Seasons in NFL

Seasons with original team

AP All-Pro

2012

Bryan Anger (Cal)

3

70

Jaguars

1*

1*

2012

Brad Nortman (Wisconsin)

6

207

Panthers

1*

1*

2011

Matt Bosher (Miami FL)

6

192

Falcons

2*

2*

2010

Zoltan Mesko (Michigan)

5

150

Patriots

3*

3*

2010

Brent Bowden (Virginia Tech)

6

172

Buccaneers

0

0

2010

Matt Dodge (East Carolina)

7

221

Giants

1

1

2009

Kevin Huber (Cincinnati)

5

142

Bengals

4*

4*

2009

Thomas Morstead (SMU)

5

164

Saints

4*

4*

2009

Pat McAfee (West Virginia)

7

222

Colts

4*

4*

2008

Durant Brooks (Georgia Tech)

6

168

Redskins

1

1

2007

Adam Podlesh (Maryland)

4

101

Jaguars

6*

4

2007

Daniel Sepulveda (Baylor)

4

112

Steelers

4

4

2007

Brandon Fields (Michigan State)

7

225

Dolphins

6*

6*

2006

Sam Koch (Nebraska)

6

203

Ravens

7*

7*

2006

Ryan Plackemeier (Wake Forest)

7

239

Seahawks

3

3

2005

Dustin Colquitt (Tennessee)

3

99

Chiefs

8*

8*

2005

Reggie Hodges (Ball State)

6

210

Rams

5*

1

2004

B.J. Sander (Ohio State)

3

87

Packers

1

1

2004

Andy Lee (Pittsburgh)

6

188

49ers

9*

9*

3

2004

Donnie Jones (LSU)

7

224

Seahawks

9*

1

2003

Mike Scifres (Western Illinois)

5

149

Chargers

10*

10*

2003

Eddie Johnson (Idaho State)

6

180

Vikings

1

1

2002

Dave Zastudil (Ohio)

4

112

Ravens

10*

4

2002

Craig Jarrett (Michigan State)

6

194

Seahawks

1

0

2001

Nick Harris (Cal)

4

120

Broncos

12*

3

2000

Shane Lechler (Texas A&M)

5

142

Raiders

13*

13*

6

1999

Josh Bidwell (Oregon)

4

133

Packers

10

4

1999

Brent Bartholomew (Ohio State)

6

192

Dolphins

2

1

1999

Hunter Smith (Notre Dame)

7

210

Colts

12

10

1999

Rodney Williams (Georgia Tech)

7

252

Rams

1

0

1997

Brad Maynard (Ball State)

3

95

Giants

15

4

1995

Todd Sauerbrun (West Virginia)

2

56

Bears

13

5

2

1994

Pat O'Neill (Syracuse)

5

135

Patriots

2

2

1994

Mitch Berger (Colorado)

6

193

Eagles

14

1

1993

Harold Alexander (Appalachian State)

3

67

Falcons

2

2

1993

Craig Hentrich (Notre Dame)

8

200

Jets

16

0

1

What does this data tell us? For starters, it's just another example of how the NFL Draft is an inexact science. As with every other position, some picks will work out exceptionally well, some will be huge mistakes and some will come in somewhere in between outstanding and disaster. Just because you draft a punter doesn't mean you're going to get the next Shane Lechler or Andy Lee. (The Bay Area sure can pick its punters, though.)

This data does tell us that 18 of the drafted punters since 1993 are no longer in the NFL. On average, the career for those 18 punters lasted 5.5 seasons. 10 of those punters failed to make it to a third season, and 12 were unable to make it past four seasons. The other six punters were in the NFL for at least 10 seasons.

With 18 punters no longer in the NFL, this means 18 of the punters drafted since 1993 are still in the league. Lechler has been around the longest with 13 seasons under his belt, and the Lions' own Nick Harris is right behind him with 12 seasons. (Clearly, this shows that longevity doesn't necessarily equal success.) 10 of the 18 punters still around have completed at least six seasons, and seven have completed at least eight seasons.

In the last 10 years, there have been 22 punters drafted. Seven of them are no longer in the NFL, and five of them lasted a season or less. The other 15, however, are still in the NFL, and 12 of them are still with their original team. This includes both punters drafted last year and the lone punter drafted in 2011.

As hinted at earlier, longevity doesn't necessarily mean you are consistently ranked as one of the top punters. It's hard to gauge the effectiveness of all of these punters, especially since Lechler and Lee have been so dominant when it comes to the AP All-Pro team. In order to get a better idea of where you can find some of the league's top punters, let's take a look at which punters ranked in the top five in net average in each of the last three seasons. (Lions punters are included as a comparison.)

2012

Player

Net avg.

Acquired

t-1

Andy Lee (49ers)

43.2

Drafted in Round 6 in 2004

t-1

Thomas Morstead (Saints)

43.2

Drafted in Round 5 in 2009

3

Britton Colquitt (Broncos)

42.1

Signed as free agent in 2009

4

Kevin Huber (Bengals)

42.0

Drafted in Round 5 in 2009

5

Dave Zastudil (Cardinals)

41.4

Signed as free agent in 2011

27

Nick Harris (Lions)

37.6

Signed as free agent in 2012

2011

Player

Net avg.

Acquired

1

Andy Lee (49ers)

44.0

Drafted in Round 6 in 2004

2

Thomas Morstead (Saints)

43.1

Drafted in Round 5 in 2009

3

Zoltan Mesko (Patriots)

41.5

Drafted in Round 5 in 2010

4

Brandon Fields (Dolphins)

41.1

Drafted in Round 7 in 2007

5

Shane Lechler (Raiders)

40.9

Drafted in Round 5 in 2000

20

Ben Graham (Lions)

38.7

Signed as free agent in 2011

33

Ryan Donahue (Lions)

35.6

Signed as free agent in 2011

2010

Player

Net avg.

Acquired

1

Mat McBriar (Cowboys)

41.7

Signed as free agent in 2004

2

Shane Lechler (Raiders)

40.8

Drafted in Round 5 in 2000

3

Donnie Jones (Rams)

40.0

Signed as RFA from Dolphins in 2007

t-4

Sam Koch (Ravens)

39.2

Drafted in Round 6 in 2006

t-4

Adam Podlesh (Jaguars)

39.2

Drafted in Round 4 in 2007

26

Nick Harris (Lions)

35.8

Signed as free agent in 2003

In the last three seasons, only four punters who weren't acquired by their team via the draft made the top five. In both 2010 and 2012, there were three punters in the top five playing for the team that drafted them. In 2011, all five of the top punters were playing for the team that drafted them. While this is obviously a small sample size, it does suggest that the league's top punters are typically acquired via the draft.

In order to take potential coverage issues out of the equation, let's take a look at the actual punting average leaders from the last three seasons.

2012

Player

Avg.

Acquired

1

Brandon Fields (Dolphins)

50.2

Drafted in Round 7 in 2007

2

Thomas Morstead (Saints)

50.1

Drafted in Round 5 in 2009

3

Mike Scifres (Chargers)

48.3

Drafted in Round 5 in 2003

4

Pat McAfee (Colts)

48.2

Drafted in Round 7 in 2009

5

Andy Lee (49ers)

48.1

Drafted in Round 6 in 2004

32

Nick Harris (Lions)

41.5

Signed as free agent in 2012

2011

Player

Avg.

Acquired

1

Andy Lee (49ers)

50.9

Drafted in Round 6 in 2004

2

Shane Lechler (Raiders)

50.8

Drafted in Round 5 in 2000

3

Brandon Fields (Dolphins)

48.8

Drafted in Round 7 in 2007

4

Thomas Morstead (Saints)

48.3

Drafted in Round 5 in 2009

5

Brian Moorman (Bills)

48.2

Signed as free agent in 2001

23

Ben Graham (Lions)

44.1

Signed as free agent in 2011

29

Ryan Donahue (Lions)

42.7

Signed as free agent in 2011

2010

Player

Avg.

Acquired

1

Mat McBriar (Cowboys)

47.9

Signed as free agent in 2004

2

Shane Lechler (Raiders)

47.0

Drafted in Round 5 in 2000

3

Mike Scifres (Chargers)

46.7

Drafted in Round 5 in 2003

t-4

Brandon Fields (Dolphins)

46.2

Drafted in Round 7 in 2007

t-4

Andy Lee (49ers)

46.2

Drafted in Round 6 in 2004

10

Nick Harris (Lions)

44.6

Signed as free agent in 2003

This is even more draft-heavy. 13 of a possible 15 punters in the top five in average were acquired by their team via the draft. Only two were acquired via free agency. Again, this is a small sample size, but it suggests that the best legs in the NFL are coming from the draft.

The Lions haven't actually drafted a punter since they selected San Diego State's Mike Saxon in the 11th round back in 1984. Interestingly enough, Saxon was drafted one year after the Lions took Arizona State punter Mike Black in the seventh round. Black played in 58 games for the Lions over five seasons, whereas Saxon never suited up for them. (Saxon did end up playing 11 seasons in the NFL, though.)

Could this be the year that the Lions end their punter-in-the-draft drought? Based on where their punters have ranked the last few years (see the above tables) and the fact that so many of the league's top punters have come from the draft, now seems like as good of a time as any. While I don't know if I necessarily want to see the Lions spend a third-round pick on a punter, a third-day pick could certainly be worth it. Yes, you run the risk of a bust, but that's the case with any pick. The flip side is that if you hit on a good punter, you may not have to worry about that position for the next decade or longer.

Should the Lions decide to select a punter in this year's draft, what are their options? According to most 2013 NFL Draft rankings, the top punter this year is either Louisiana Tech's Ryan Allen, who punted for the Lions-coached South in the Senior Bowl, or LSU's Brad Wing. UCLA's Jeff Locke and Oklahoma State's Quinn Sharp are also typically ranked in the top four. Here's a look at each player's collegiate stats:

Brad Wing

Punts

Avg.

Long

2012

59

44.8

69

2011

59

44.4

73

Ryan Allen

Punts

Avg.

Long

2012

45

48.0

85

2011

83

46.1

72

2010

60

40.8

66

Quinn Sharp

Punts

Avg.

Long

2012

44

46.3

74

2011

47

46.3

60

2010

46

46.2

78

2009

67

45.1

67

Jeff Locke

Punts

Avg.

Long

2012

77

43.3

64

2011

64

44.3

70

2010

64

45.8

63

2009

70

43.6

81

Clearly, there are a few really solid options in this year's draft. Sharp had very good numbers on a consistent basis at Oklahoma State, Locke had a pretty solid career at UCLA and Allen put up the best numbers of these punters in 2012.

Perhaps the most interesting prospect is Wing, who hails from Australia and decided to leave LSU early for the NFL. It's worth mentioning that Wing was suspended for LSU's bowl game before entering the NFL Draft, but I don't think I'd call him a character concern. I would call him a talent, because he showed off his skills in a big way at LSU. In 2011, he played a big role in LSU's run to the national title game by consistently flipping the field. There was even some talk of a Heisman campaign for a bit. Perhaps that had more to do with his general swagger than anything, but the point remains that Wing made an impact on LSU's games.

Whether the Lions take Wing or go a different route, they need a punter who can make a positive impact on games. When the offense is pinned deep and can't move the chains, they need somebody who can flip the field with his leg. The coverage unit also has to do its job, of course, but a big leg at punter is something the Lions have seemingly been lacking. This was especially evident last season, and I'm sure the defense would have liked for the Lions to have somebody who could give them a field-position advantage more often than not.

Again, this is all an inexact science, but at the very least, the last 20 drafts coupled with the last few years of punting data have not convinced me that free agency is the right route for the Lions to take in their search for a new punter. I think the investment in using a pick on a punter would be worthwhile for a team like the Lions. Drafting a punter certainly wouldn't be a flashy move, but don't underestimate the impact a solid punter could have on the field-position battle week in and week out. Punter is a real need for the Lions, and I'm all for them finding one in the draft.

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