Commish's Court: The Dave Zastudil Project
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.
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.
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.