While the position of punter is among one of the least valuable spots on an NFL roster, Johnny Hekker found unique ways to contribute to the Los Angeles Rams over his nine years with the team.
As a former high school quarterback, Hekker came into the NFL with the ability to throw the football and keep opposing special teams units on their toes. But this ability didn’t come at the expense of his kicking, because he maintained some of the best punting metrics during his career with the Rams - Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, even went as far as calling him a “weapon” ahead of the 2019 Super Bowl.
Bill Belichick says “good morning” and then breaks down the Rams, noting they have the fewest penalties on offense this year and that punter Johnny Hekker is a weapon, among other things. pic.twitter.com/PewwjLkWtx— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) January 24, 2019
Including the playoffs Hekker attempted 24 passes in his time with the Rams, completing 15 (63%) for 198 yards, 1 TD, and 1 interception. 14 of the 15 completions resulted in a first down - giving the offense a new set of downs and second chance to come away with points. Over the same time span Hekker punted the ball 773 times, indicating that the Rams ran fakes on just 3% of their punting scenarios. LA also asked Hekker to throw the ball on fake field goal attempts.
Head coach Sean McVay leveraged Hekker’s passing abilities at pivotal moments, whether backed up deep in the team’s own territory or late in the game when the Rams didn’t have many opportunities to get the ball back.
But after two years of production in 2020-2021 that did not live up to the high expectations Hekker set for himself, he was released by the team and signed as a free agent with the Carolina Panthers.
It’s fair to wonder if the Rams’ willingness to run fakes at a higher-than-usual frequency left along with Hekker.
LA will now turn to veteran punter Riley Dixon, who spent 2 years with the Denver Broncos and 4 with the New York Giants. Dixon is also expected to compete with undrafted free agent rookie Cameron Dicker of Texas for the starting job.
Dixon has attempted 3 passes during his 6 NFL seasons, completing just 1 for 16 yards and a first down. He also had a rush attempt in 2018 that went for 14 yards and a first down.
So while it’s not impossible for the Rams to run a fake with Dixon, it’s unlikely they will continue to operate at this same frequency.
While Sean McVay has been stellar during his five seasons with the Rams, one area where he could still improve is fourth down aggressiveness. Perhaps not having a passing threat at punter, like Hekker, could encourage the Rams to keep their best players on the field for one more play.
Another season of Sean McVay really struggling on 4th downs.— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) October 4, 2021
Has anyone ever asked him about why he's so scared to go for it? Having Jared Goff isn't an excuse anymore pic.twitter.com/2PsuXN6QY2
What if instead of the punter throwing the ball, the Rams instead gave Matthew Stafford one more shot? If Cooper Kupp is a highly effective receiver on third down, wouldn’t he also excel when you need a conversion on fourth down?
It’s important to put the ball in the hands of your best players as often as possible, and leveraging the coaching staff’s trust in Stafford on fourth down is a way to steal victories from the margins.
While the Rams will probably attempt less fakes without Hekker, they should still go for it on fourth down more often.
Johnny Hekker fakes, passes, and runs over the years:
Punters are people too! First down for Hekker on the fake! pic.twitter.com/IBQ6fcSXdV— uSTADIUM (@uSTADIUM) October 20, 2019
There’s no great angle of Hekker’s run, but here are a couple looks at it. pic.twitter.com/tcxWD0Ylcb— Cameron DaSilva (@camdasilva) November 5, 2018
Love seeing Danny Amendola still out here doing this thing. He was on the receiving end of Johnny Hekker’s first career touchdown pass.— James B. Terry (@terryjt1) October 31, 2021
Week four in 2012.
Only Rams touchdown on the day. Four more Greg the Leg field goals to hit 19 points. pic.twitter.com/jLGCF1qgnw
WATCH: Johnny Hekker fools Redskins with fake punt for first down https://t.co/Sg0dkh4l2R— Rams Wire (@TheRamsWire) September 17, 2017