When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth
Long ago, punters were much more important in NFL football. In the 70's, 80's and even to some extent the early 90's, it was very common for punters to be taken in the early rounds of the draft. Not just the great Ray Guy in the 1st round in 1973, but the 1977, 1978 and 1982 drafts all had punters taken in the 2nd round. The Rams drafted Dale Hatcher in the 3rd round in 1985. As a rookie, Hatcher was a 1st team All Pro and Pro Bowler. He led the NFL in net punting average that season.
Combining the 1991 and 1992 drafts, there were a total of 7 punters selected. Punters were consistently drafted at the same rate in the 70's and 80's. After 1992, however, there was a sea change. It would be another 30 years before back to back drafts combined to produce at least 7 punters. The 2021 and 2022 drafts have created an influx of punting talent into the NFL that we haven't seen for a long time.
In the very early days of football, punting was more important than passing. The forward pass wasn't even allowed until the early 20th century. Public outcry regarding the number of football players dying created a push to legally ban the game and allowing passes was viewed as a way to reduce the number of football fatalities and save the sport.
Under archaic football rules, certain offensive players could recover a punt as if it were an onside kick, so punting was a viable strategy for a team to try to create a big play. Sometimes a team would punt on 1st or 2nd down. To a degree, punting was an early way of "passing" the ball downfield, before passing was allowed and became widespread.
I don't expect McVay to send out the punting unit on 1st downs this season, but unless the Rams plan on scoring every single possession, Ethan Evans will get on the field at some point. How will he do?
What Makes a Punter Good?
There is more to punting in the NFL than just blasting the football as hard and as far as you can kick it.
Ryan Stonehouse was a rookie UDFA last season for the Titans. His 53.1 yard punting average led the NFL. He was named 2nd team All Pro. So, by some measurements, he was one of the best punters in the league.
By other standards, however, he was arguably only average in overall performance. Stonehouse tended to outkick his coverage and wasn't good at pinning the opponent deep. Someone posted All 22 video of some of his punts, and on one play, when the punt returner catches the ball, the nearest gunner is still 20 yards away. Another punt, the LOS is around his 45, a great opportunity to pin the opponent deep and win field position, but he can't control the distance and bounce of the ball, and the punt bounces into the end zone for a touchback, so the gross yardage looks good, but the net outcome is mediocre. Next punt, he hammers it far and straight, but this allows the opponent to set up a wide return and the blocker cuts off the gunner on that side, helping the PR get to the sideline. A punt backed up, the ball goes so far, the closest gunner is about 25 yards away from the PR when he catches the ball, the PR is able to build up speed, got a solid return and only a nice open field tackle prevented an even bigger return, maybe even a TD, because there was no other unblocked coverage guy left on that side of the field if that tackle had been missed, the PR would have been running at the punter in wide open space at full speed (watching this play closely, this tackler should have been blocked at the very beginning of the play, but there was a miscommunication between 2 guys at the LOS, so if it weren't for this seemingly minor error in delaying guys getting off the line, that gap would have been wide open for the PR to run through. Sometimes it might seem like the players at the line on a punt return aren't very important and are just filler, but that's not the case, there are times where just 1 second or even half a second of blocking can be the difference in whether the return breaks big.)
Stonehouse had the worst fair catch percentage (12.2%) in the league. He had the highest percentage of his punts returned (65.6%) in the league. In contrast, Johnny Hekker had an excellent fair catch percentage of 38.3%. Hekker had the third lowest return rate (33.3%) in the NFL and a very low touchback rate of 13.3%. Hekker was 3rd in the NFL in net punting.
Stonehouse had the 2nd most touchbacks in the NFL. His touchback rate (touchbacks divided by the sum of punts inside 20 and touchbacks) was 23.1%. Hekker had a better touchback rate of 13.3% (a lower percentage is better.) PFF graded Stonehouse only 17th out of 34 qualifying punters. Hekker was 6th.
Stonehouse was my favorite UDFA punting prospect in last year's class. He has a very powerful leg. On the other hand, as the stats and his video clips illustrate, he's not technically advanced.
Riley Dixon had the 3rd best PFF grade among punters. But, he was only 21st or 24th in net punting average (for some reason, there are minor discrepancies in stats from different sources) and SIS ranked him tied for 18th in total punting points. Dixon had a fair catch percentage of 19.2% and a touchback rate of 18.2%. Overall, I felt that Dixon had a good year for the Rams, but since Hekker was so good in 2022, it is debatable whether the Rams made the right decision in dumping him.
A punter who I feel is comparable to Evans is Trenton Gill, who was a 7th round pick by the Bears in 2022.
Size: Evans is 6'4'' tall and 235 pounds. Gill is 6'4'' tall and 219 pounds.
Evans (2022 at Wingate): 45.7 gross average, 24.7% fair catch rate, 25% touchback rate. 3 career punts blocked.
Gill (NCST): 45.8 career gross average, 33.5% fair catch rate, 21.7% touchback rate. 2 career punts blocked.
Evans played at a Division II school. He is more of a developmental prospect than a finished product. He has a strong leg, but he has a slower set up and delivery, lacked touch and ball control and was inconsistent in college. Evans really improved over his career and by his final seasons his average was nearly identical to Gill's career average at NCST.
As a rookie, Gill was ranked 24th out of 34 punters by PFF grade. He was 22nd in gross average and 26th in net average. He had a very good 13% touchback rate and a good 30.3% fair catch rate. 47% of his punts were returned. Even though Gill didn't have great net punting stats, if you look inside his numbers at some of the subcategories, they hint at a player with solid hang time and ball control. This was a key reason I liked Gill as a punting prospect, he had better technique and ball control than most of the other punters, such as Stonehouse. For example, Jake Camarda was a 4th rd pick by the Bucs. He hit many booming punts, just like Stonehouse, but didn't demonstrate great technical ability. He led the NFL in touchbacks and had a lousy 31.3% touchback rate. He had a 26.7% fair catch rate.
A revealing metric IMO is average punt return yards per attempt. Obviously, this number can be skewed by a poor coverage team, because if they miss tackles or get out of lanes, it can make the punter look bad. Over a full season, however, it can also show which punters kick the ball higher and limit return yardage and which ones kick the ball too flat or too far. This is how some NFL punters ranked in the category last season (a lower number is better):
Corey Bojorquez 13.3 yards
Jake Camarda 12.8 yards
Ryan Stonehouse 12.2 yards
Riley Dixon 10.8 yards
Trenton Gill 10.0 yards
Johnny Hekker 9.8 yards
Bryan Anger 8.25 yards
Logan Cookie 7.0 yards
Michael Dixon 6.6 yards
Tress Way 6.5 yards
Guys like Bojorquez, Camarda and Stonehouse can punt it far, but this can be dangerous, because it opens the door for a killer long punt return by the opponent.
2023 Goals for Evans
While Ryan Stonehouse turned heads last year with his powerful leg, my statistical model for Ethan Evans in 2023 isn't Stonehouse's All Pro season, it is Trenton Gill's rookie season. Obviously, we don't want to see any punts get blocked, but beyond that, I'd like to see Evans have a better touchback rate (e.g. below 20%) and a better fair catch rate (e.g. 30%) than he posted his final year in college.
Evans has shown in training that he can deliver high, rainmaker punts with great hang times, but can he consistently do it with NFL players pressuring him, trying to block the kick? Evans needs to learn to be more efficient with his steps and timing, but he can't compromise his ball striking consistency as he adjusts to NFL game speed.
Another factor is that the new long snapper, Alex Ward, isn't known for having great velocity on his deep snaps. Ward isn't a big guy either, which can make it more challenging to plug up the gaps and prevent blocked punts. If you find preseason games boring, one thing you can do for random entertainment is get a stopwatch and measure how quickly the snap gets back to the punter, how much total time elapses between the snap and the punt and how much hang time Evans gets on each punt.
Bottom line, what I want to see from Evans as a rookie isn't necessarily highlight reel 70 yard bombs that make Sportscenter. I'm more interested in consistency and situational punting. How often does he pin the opponent deep when the field position gives him good opportunities to hit the coffin corner or hang it up high at about the 10 yard line? Can he control the flight and hang time of the ball to help the coverage, so that the PR has less chance or breaking big returns? Does he hit any killer shanks that hand points to the opponent? When our punter trots out onto the field, we want those plays to look boring, we don't want them to be drama filled roller coaster rides. Being a good NFL punter is more complicated than just trying to have the best gross punting average.
Long term, it would be a home run if Evans became another Johnny Hekker. As the numbers show, what makes Hekker so good is more than just his ability to punt the ball far. Hekker is one of the most skilled punters in the NFL. It can take many years for a punter to work at his craft and develop an advanced level of proficiency, so I'm not expecting a raw rookie like Evans to be elite in 2023, but if he can get off on the right foot, it would be a great sign for his career prospects and reassure the Rams that they made a great move by drafting him.