Dating back to 2007, I’ve participated in an IDP league that allows for three different defensive formulations (4-3, 3-4, nickel) and includes a roster spot for a punter. The flexibility offered on defense is quite interesting, as it gives owners an opportunity to go heavy on linebackers (3-4) or cornerbacks (nickel). Very rare is the situation that an owner would actually go 4-3, but if an owner were to land on two strong defensive tackles, it’s certainly a decent alternative on a heavy bye week. But perhaps the most difficult position to fill is punter, because there’s very little information available and virtually no one critically evaluating that information from a fantasy perspective. With that in mind, here’s a look at how one should approach filling the punter position in leagues that include it…
First off, it’s important to evaluate what makes a good punter. In the league I’m referencing here, punters are rewarded for long punts (yards over 40 count in the positive) and for punts inside the 20 yard line (this is important so punters don’t get punished when they pin opponents deep in their own zone with what is statistically a short-distance punt). It’s also worth noting that punters who play for warm-weather teams (or in domes) are better bets to put up solid numbers as the winter approaches. The AFC West is a great place to look, as all four teams play in relatively ideal punting conditions, and the South divisions in both conferences are also good bets.
Theoretically, the most valuable punter would be one who nets a very high average per punt and also gets tons of opportunities to punt long distances. The perfect storm hit in 2009, when the Oakland Raiders’ Shane Lechler put together an absolutely epic season, shattering all prior expectations for the position. The Raiders weren’t good, while Lechler was magnificent, and the result (71.45 points) placed him 46th overall amongst all players. To put his performance into context, the top-ranked linebacker (Patrick Willis) finished with 74.96 points (41st overall). Amongst punters, Lechler was nearly 29% better than the next-nearest competitor, the 49ers’ Andy Lee (55.55 points, 94th overall). In other words, Lechler delivered an absolutely epic performance. And while it was certainly an outlier, it’s worth noting that getting even 40 points at a position where the average player scores approximately 28 is a critical way to gain an edge.
Here’s a look at the fantasy rankings from 2010, along with the player’s 2009 ranking and the year-to-year change…[table "183" not found /]
Note: Reggie Hodges’ 37.21 final score included approximately 4.5 points for his epic 68-yard run against the New Orleans Saints in Week 7.
And here’s a look at the PFF rankings…[table "185" not found /]
There’s obviously quite a lot of similarity between the two charts, and it’s pretty clear that drafting punters on bad teams is the right strategy as a starting point. Of the top 15 punters on the PFF rankings, only five of them (Sam Koch, Steve Weatherford, Thomas Morstead, Dustin Colquitt, and Daniel Sepulveda) played for playoff teams, while only four of the top 15 fantasy punters (Colquitt, Weatherford, Koch, and Morstead) reached the postseason.
Given that the Chiefs benefited greatly from playing in a pretty mediocre division, there’s a good chance they’ll regress a bit in 2011, which makes Colquitt a very solid play. Meanwhile, anticipated improvement in Detroit could spell trouble for Nick Harris, though he does benefit from playing his home games in the climate-controlled Ford Field. As for Weatherford and Koch, the fact that they excelled despite their teams’ strong on-field performance makes them strong possibilities to deliver solid numbers in 2011.
Looking just outside the top 10, Chris Kluwe is a strong bet to rise in 2011, as he’s a solid punter playing in a dome for a team whose offense is a solid bet to regress dramatically. The QB situation in Minnesota is far from settled and it’s unclear whether star wideout Sidney Rice will return, while star tailback Adrian Peterson plays a hard-nosed, heavy-contact style that has placed him on the precipice of an almost-certain rapid decline. If Kluwe’s opportunities increase by 10-15% (or more) and he kicks well, he could easily rise into the top five.
In Atlanta, there’s an interesting competition brewing between incumbent Michael Koenen and rookie Matt Bosher (University of Miami). Koenen finished 26th overall in the rankings, and though that was partly due to the Falcons’ strong play, it’s only part of the story. While Colquitt, Weatherford and Koch excelled despite playing for good teams – with Weatherford and Koch playing in bad-weather, no-dome situations – Koenen was atrocious despite the fact that he was kicking in the comfort of the Georgia Dome. For the second season in a row, he finished in the bottom-third of fantasy punters (26th in 2010, 28th in 2009). Likely with this consistently poor performance in mind, the Falcons used a sixth-round pick in the 2011 Draft to select Bosher, who is a good bet to win the job.
Though there’s certainly going to be a fair amount of free agent movement – and thus an altering of the league’s power balance, which would affect the punter rankings dramatically – here’s a look at the top 10 fantasy punters for 2011 as things stand currently…
- Andy Lee, San Francisco 49ers
- Donnie Jones, St. Louis Rams
- Shane Lechler, Oakland Raiders
- Dustin Colquitt, Kansas City Chiefs
- Brandon Fields, Miami Dolphins
- Mat McBriar, Dallas Cowboys
- Sam Koch, Baltimore Ravens
- Chris Kluwe, Minnesota Vikings
- Nic Harris, Detroit Lions
- Steve Weatherford, New York Jets
Check in throughout the 2011 season, as I’ll check in on a semi-regular basis with updates on this fairly amorphous fantasy position.