- AJ Mass, Rumor Central
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Earlier this year, ESPN The Magazine got together a bunch of NFL players to take part in a mock draft alongside some of my fantasy football colleagues. During the draft, every single player, including wide receivers Roy Williams, Drew Bennett and Laurent Robinson had the honor of drafting themselves for their fantasy roster. Even linebacker Clint Ingram of the Jaguars was able to select himself, along with his defensive teammates, and can have an actual impact on his team's fantasy fortune. Sadly though, Dave Zastudil was not invited to take part, nor were any of his punting brethren. Even if they had been, the opportunity to select themselves would not have availed itself.
Why not? Because as far as fantasy football is concerned, the punter does not exist. And unless he makes a shoestring tackle, preventing Devin Hester from returning a kick for a touchdown, you probably don't even notice him. Quick! Who was the punter for the Rams last season? Unless you're among the most hardcore of fans, or you live in St. Louis, you probably have no idea. And yet Donnie Jones has been in the NFL since 2004.
Every year in the offseason, I ask the owners in my long-time dynasty league if they have any suggestions for rules changes. Although we do tweak the rules a bit from time to time, we've essentially had the same set of rules for more than a decade. But every few seasons, somebody asks if we can incorporate punters into the mix and after a good hearty laugh, I explain why that won't be happening. It's not that I'm completely opposed to the idea. It's just that there's no good way to do it. Punting is such a unique skill, and it doesn't hold up to statistical scrutiny the same way rushing, receiving and passing do.
You can't simply give a punter points per punt or for each yard they kick the ball. Punters on teams with good offenses rarely see the field, while punters on bad offensive teams never seem to leave the field. Chris Hanson of the Patriots had 44 punts last season, and in four games he punted just once. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Andy Lee had only one game all season with less than five punts, finishing the season with a league-high 105 punts, and more than 3,000 more yards than Hanson. Now, you can argue that Lee makes a better choice since he's likely to punt more than Hanson, just as you'd want to draft a running back who is going to get the ball 25 times a game rather than one who is going to get the ball much less often. But there's one problem with that: When it comes to punting, more isn't always better.
If a punter is kicking from midfield, which result would he prefer? A 41-yarder out of bounds that puts his opponent on the 9-yard line or a blast through the back of the end zone, resulting in a touchback? Obviously, it's the former. But if fantasy leagues award points for yardage, then the second scenario would be worth more. That would be tantamount to awarding extra points to a running back for a fumble. That's not going to work either.
So how about instead of using total yards we use net yards, which counts the change in the line of scrimmage from the time of the punt to where the opposing team takes over possession. For a kick that goes into the end zone, that will be a 20-yard difference between the gross punting yardage and the net punting yardage. Unfortunately, that's not going to be a fair assessment of a punter, either. Let's say you have Punter A, who, in a word, stinks. He gets off five punts in a game, and each time he either shanks the ball or punts it into the end zone for a touchback. He is hideously awful, and accumulates only 100 net yards. Then you have Punter B, who has three booming 50-yard punts, two of which land inside the 10-yard line and sail out of bounds without a chance for the other team to return them. But on the third punt, the return man catches the ball on the 5-yard line and weaves his way through the coverage, returning the punt right to the original line of scrimmage. This kicker also nets only 100 yards. For these two players to be worth the same to a fantasy team makes no sense.
The only conceivable way to make punting work is to use average net yards per kick as your barometer. The league average last season among the 32 regular punters in the NFL was in the neighborhood of 37 net yards per kick. Shane Lechler ranked the highest with a 41.1 average net, and Mike Barr of Arizona brought up the rear with only a 31.7 average net. If you give punters one point for each full yard over the league average, and deduct one for each full yard below the league average, that could be the basis for a decent scoring system. However, you'd have to cap the total points (three or four?) a punter could have in either direction. After all, you wouldn't want to have a punter have only one kick on the day and see an incredible 72-yard blast earn his team 35 points. Three points for a successful day seems to be the appropriate amount. That's enough to make the punter matter, but not too much, in the overall fortune of his team.
In addition -- because not all punts are created equal, as we pointed out earlier -- we would award an extra half-point for any punt inside the 20-yard line. We'd also deduct a point for a punt being blocked. This should give you enough of a point-scoring variance for your punter so that the difference between the best punter in a given week and the worst could conceivably tip the scales in a fantasy football contest, yet at the same time not be such a huge swing that the punter would make a major impact on your final score.
I'm not sure you're going to want to play in a league where the possibility exists that your fantasy playoffs fate will rest on the foot of Dave Zastudil. But in the immortal words of George Michael, "If you're gonna do it, do it right -- right?"
AJ Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
Is there a place for punters in fantasy football? AJ Mass says it's a challenge to incorporate them, but it can be done.