Thomas Morstead Grades Among Top 5 Punters In The NFL

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

When you say "talk dirty to me," it's not often that you're talking punter statistics. But, for whatever reason, one of the most important positions in the league gets the least recognition when it's going well. This is a "Thomas Morstead Appreciation" article, and I'm talking dirty about punters.

Thomas Morstead is, quite possibly, the best Saints player that the average fan struggles to spell.  Since being drafted in 2009, Morstead has evolved into one of the best field position equalizers in the game.  Punter is an often under-appreciated position among fans, not because they're not talented, but because the most exciting thing that can happen on a punt is a.) a muffed punt or b.) a return for a touchdown, neither of which will be directly credited to the punter (unless that punter's name is Matt Dodge).

Last season, Morstead graded fourth in the NFL among punters for his numbers*.  The only players ahead of him were Shane Lechler, Johnny Hecker and Pat McAfee.  Morstead punted 15 times less than any of these three, and his overall rating of 31.1 trailed only slightly behind McAfee's 32.4 (Lechler was miles ahead of the rest at 40.9).

But without context, all of these numbers are just that: numbers.  So what goes into these ratings?  A few of the numbers are number of punts, total yards, yards per punt, longest punt, punts inside the 20, maximum height, punt percentage returned, blocks, touchbacks, punts out of bounds and net yards.  There are several other nuanced stats that come into consideration as well, such as location the ball was kicked from and location the ball was caught/landed (not including any rolls that may occur).

Which begs the question: How did Morstead do?  Well, for starters, his 46.5 yards per punt average was no more than 2 yards behind anyone in the league, despite his total yards being 8th among punters in the top 10.  His 39.3% returned average also grades slightly above average, but it really isn't overwhelming.  The New Orleans punt coverage obviously factors into this, but they were graded at average to slightly below average throughout the season.  Not quite as bad as their at best mediocre at and at worst abysmal performances on kickoffs, but not good enough to thoroughly skew the numbers in one direction or the other.

With that being said, Morstead only had 24 punts returned against him, which, though it is skewed by his low 61 punts (second least total only below San Diego's Mike Scifres), was 2nd among the top 10 (again, behind Scifres).  Even more importantly, he gave up 189 yards against, behind only Scifres again, so even the punts that were returned didn't get very far.  These numbers are a testament to the New Orleans special teams, because Morstead's 5.2 max height was relatively low compared to other top 10 punters, which lowered his overall hangtime.

Morstead also didn't have a single punt blocked last season.  That may not seem like a big deal, but consistency matters here.  Punters get their 17 yard snap, step step boot. If punters can make sure that the line never gets through, the fans never have aneurysms trying to figure out what happened on the previous play.  Want to know how important a blocked punt is for the momentum of a game?  Ask Steve Gleason, or literally any Atlanta fan that has been around since 2006.

Where Morstead really thrived was in net yardage.  Morstead was third in the NFL in net yards, behind only Hecker and Atlanta's Matt Bosher (interesting little tidbit: New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina's punters were all ranked 4th 5th & 6th, respectively).  Morstead's Net yardage was 41.8, an extremely impressive number.  Us as fans know that he has a booming leg, and that's the reason that Sean Payton also uses him as a kickoff specialist (in which he was 10th in the league with a 55.79% touchback percentage).  What this also means is that he gets enough lift on an average punt to let his guys get downfield and make the play, something that the gunners get credit for but, more often than not, the punter deserves at the very least partial credit for (I don't want to 100% discredit the New Orleans special teams coverage).

The reason that Morstead rarely gets talked about as is is because he's not a "flashy" punter, if such a thing can exist.  The Saints special teams is downright boring, but that's how a special teams unit should be.  We as fans should appreciate the fact that we can leave on a fourth down and see the other team with the ball wherever it may have landed; that's a luxury that teams like the Redskins (who were dead last in almost all categories) cannot afford because they might miss a big play from the other side.

We all know that field position determines the outcome of a game, that's why turnovers are considered the most telling stat for whether a team won or lost.  But for a group of people that understands that, players like Morstead, who quietly and consistently go about their business, are rarely appreciated.  Punters may count less than almost any other position against the cap, but when the game is on the line they count more than anyone else.  It may not seem to matter in the grand scheme of things, and no one will ever pay attention to punter stats, there's too much nuance and too many variables, but at the end of the day those stats can easily be the difference between a win and a loss.  We're just lucky to have one of the best in the business, and the fact that Morstead won't lose the Saints any games is good enough for me.

* Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

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