The recent revolution in NFL football emphasizing offense over everything else has changed the perspective of the kicking game. Ingrained ideas about time of possession, position on the pitch, running the ball and stopping the run are falling by the wayside. In his place is a new NFL that increasingly values passing and pass defense, explosive plays and quick drives, and looks to him on fourth down.
The New York Giants parted ways this offseason with their punter of recent years, Riley Dixon. Dixon performed well when he first came to the Giants, but his punts dwindled thereafter. On a $2.9 million-per-year contract, according to Spotrac, Joe Schoen decided it would be best if the Giants replaced him, and Dixon was released. Instead, Schoen signed Jamie Gillan, the “Scottish Hammer,” to a $1.065 million deal. The question is: aside from the cap space created, will this change have any effect on the Giants’ fortunes on the field?
NFL Bettors Ranking
Here are the 2021 Pro Football Focus rankings of punters with at least 35 clearances:
PFF rates bettors using a similar approach to the one they use for other positions. They try to judge the performance of the kicker (distance, proximity to the sideline, ideal “point of impact” for a touchback avoidance attempt) and not the outcome. So, for example, a punt that lands on the 5-yard line but has an unfortunate rebound in the end zone is rated no worse than a punt that lands on the 1-yard line and has the good fortune to stay there.
Gillan and Dixon are ranked 28th and 29th on the PFF list, with “replacement level” ratings in the low 50s. Only three of last season’s top 10 bettors were on teams that made the playoffs, and all three were eliminated in the first round. The 31st and 32nd ranked punters played for two of the best teams in the NFL in 2021.
So, on some level, the punters don’t make much of a difference. Corey Bojorquez’s blocked punt in the playoffs was a crucial factor in Green Bay’s loss to San Francisco, but that was his only blocked punt of the season; during the season in the set he was in the middle of the group. And the punt block in front of him on that play may not have been stellar. However, for the 2022 season, Bojorquez is a Cleveland Brown.
The Decline of Clearance as a Strategy
Increasingly, NFL teams are going for the first down on the fourth down instead of punts, as analytics say that’s the smart play most of the time when a team is in the opponent’s territory. Therefore, we might expect that the most analytics-oriented teams will be the ones doing it the most, and that these will generally be the most successful teams. Here’s a chart courtesy of StatMuse showing the teams that tried the most fourth down in 2021:
Actually, most of the teams that tried it most often were bad, including the Giants, not exactly a very analysis-oriented team, at No. 7. Only the Los Angeles Chargers, led by coach in chief monitoring analysis. Brandon Staley, are high on the list. Eight of the nine teams that tried the least were playoff teams, including the two Super Bowl teams, the Rams and the Bengals.
If we order the StatMuse numbers in a different way, we can better see what is happening. The league leaders in percentage of successful fourth chance attempts they were Baltimore (66.7 percent), Kansas City, Cincinnati, Los Angeles Chargers, New England, Las Vegas and Tennessee, all but one of them playoff teams. And what is more important, all of them teams with good offenses. The Giants were seventh from bottom in success rate at 43.3 percent. The losing teams are usually the ones in positions where they have to bet and go for it, but don’t have the offensive staff or coaches to make it work. Winning teams generally face those situations less often, but have the offensive ability to do better when they have to.
Seen in this light, the conservative picks Joe Judge often made in 2021 may be a bit more defensible: When you have an offensive line that can’t protect the quarterback and can’t move the stack, you might be better off punting. . .
An Expected Aggregate Points Approach to Evaluate Punters
As for other positions, Expected Aggregate Points (EPA) per play for punters can be calculated to tell us who are the best punters in the NFL. But the usual way of calculating the EPA does not work well for punters. The EPA uses historical information about the down, distance, field position, and game situation (score and time) to determine if a particular play call and result add to or subtract from the team’s scoring probability.
The Puntalytics project explains that many of the factors that go into calculating the EPA are beyond the bettor’s control. For example, any 4-and-1 punt, no matter how good, is a poor choice statistically compared to going for the first down. based on historical results. Such clearance automatically qualifies as a negative EPA. The punt should not be penalized by the coach’s decision to punt in that situation. Similarly, a punt from the opponent’s 40-yard line that goes 35 yards and is knocked down at the 5-yard line should not be penalized relative to a punt from one’s 20-yard line that goes 50 yards. And a punt returned 20 yards can be the fault of the kicker or the punt coverage team.
Puntalytics attempts to correct for all factors outside of the bettor’s control and creates a “bettor’s EPA” (pEPA) that isolates only the bettor’s performance. These are the results for 2021:
The detailed rankings differ a bit from the PFF list, but overall, both methods give a pretty clear picture of who the best and worst bettors in the NFL are. For example, by any measure, AJ Cole of the Las Vegas Raiders had the best season of any kicker in 2021, closely followed by Bryan Anger of Dallas and Logan Cooke of Jacksonville.
For Giants fans, both last year’s punter Riley Dixon and this year’s punter Jamie Gillan (at this point, anyway), were in the bottom quarter of punters, with little in favor of one over the other, except for Gillan’s cheaper salary cap for 2022. His negative pEPA/game means that, on average, his teams lost points by punting relative to what would have been expected.
How much does a good kicker help his team?
The graph above suggests that having the best punt against the worst in the NFL makes a difference of about 0.4 points per play. To put that in context, let’s look at the EPA/game for NFL starting quarterbacks in 2021 (data from rbsdm.com):
EPA/play for quarterbacks is positively correlated with higher-than-expected completion percentage, and the league leaders in EPA/play are for the most part the quarterbacks we generally consider to have had the best season of 2021. On the other hand, the difference in EPA/game between the best and worst quarterbacks in 2021 was only 0.4, the same as for bettors. Surely a good kicker isn’t worth as much to his team as a good quarterback?
The Philly Cover Corner has created a slightly different metric. Uses the Puntalytics database, but excludes punts with a fumble or penalty. The resulting metric, punter EPA+, is fairly well correlated to the product of the clearance distance and the lead time, two factors that we generally associate with a good clearance:
This metric has an even larger difference between the best and worst bettors (0.6), but no bettor has an EPA+ greater than about +0.1, less than half the EPA of the top QBs. On the other hand, most punters have a negative EPA+.
This seems to pass the sniff test: a good punt can be an advantage, though not as much as a good quarterback, but a poor punt can have a significant negative impact on a team’s chances of winning. Put another way: In today’s explosive offense-driven NFL, if a punt doesn’t provide a dramatic change in field position, what you lose is giving your opponent’s offense another chance to make big plays against you. overcomes the small advantage he gains by increasing the distance the opponent has to go to score.
By this metric, Gillan is a slight improvement over Dixon (less negative EPA+). Both are on the lower tier of distance x hang time. The Giants haven’t directly improved their chances of winning by changing bettors, but they’ve given themselves an extra $2 million to sign someone who does.
Should draft picks be used on bettors?
The bottom line for the Giants is that the punt situation promises to be more or less the same as it is in 2021, but with less cap space dedicated to the position. The Giants could have drafted a kicker with one of their 11 draft picks, but they chose not to.
Philly Cover Corner also looks at this question, comparing the pro football benchmark AV for each of the 33 bettors recruited since 2004 to the average AV for players at each draft position. The results show that it is not until the end of Round 5 that there is value in drafting a punt versus other positions, but that the value increases from that point until Round 7. The reason is that by Round 7, draft picks at most positions they are way down the rankings list at their position, while the available bettors are among the best in the country for that draft class.
The Giants had four picks in Rounds 5 and 6 and none in Round 7. They could have selected a punt instead of one of the following players: LB Micah McFadden, DT DJ Davidson, OG Marcus McKethan and LB Darrian Beavers. Two of the three most touted punters in this draft already left in Round 4: Jordan Stout (Ravens) and Jake Camarda (Buccaneers). “Punting God” Matt Araiza wasn’t selected until Round 6, the No. 180 pick, just before the Giants took Darrian Beavers at No. 182. Did Schoen have his eye on Araiza? We will never know.
Araiza was drafted by Joe Schoen’s former team, the Buffalo Bills. The selection made sense to them since their 2021 punter, Matt Haack, was the lowest or near-lowest ranked punter in the NFL in 2021, based on the charts above. Araiza will be a fascinating case study, because he flips the distance x hang time formula on its head by throwing amazingly long punts but at a low angle of elevation. Whether that will work in the NFL or subject him to an inordinate amount of explosive punt returns remains to be seen. He and Jordan Stout, another punter on the rise but with more conventional elevation angles, will provide good fodder for the question of whether punters matter.