When Roger Goodell announced that the Jacksonville Jaguars had selected punter Bryan Anger (University of California) with their 3rd round pick (70th overall), jaws dropped across the league. Not since 1995, when the Chicago Bears drafted Todd Sauerbrun in the 2nd round (56th overall), had a punter been selected so early. And considering the draft positions for three of the league’s best punters – Shane Lechler (5th round), Andy Lee (6th round), and Brandon Fields (7th round) – it’s hard to imagine how Anger could possibly represent good value in the 3rd round. But is that perspective myopic? Let’s take a closer look…
First off, we need to establish the actual value of a punter, and to do this, we need to define what a “league average” performance is. Here’s a look at how the league’s punters performed in 2011:
|Name||Team||No.||Yards||LG||Avg.||Ret||Ret %||Ret Yds||In 20||In 20 %||Net Yds|
The difference between the league’s top punter (Andy Lee) and league average was approximately 5 yards per punt. Now, it’s well understood that distance isn’t the sole measure of a punter’s value, and that the ability to consistently pin opponents inside the 20 yard line is at least as critical. But Lee excelled there as well, making him an excellent example from either perspective. So for the sake of establishing the value of a top-tier punter as compared to a league-average punter, let’s analyze Lee’s 5 yards-per-punt lead a bit.
Last year, the folks at NFLStatsBlog.com broke down NFL teams’ likelihood of scoring based upon their starting field position, and they concluded that each yard was worth approximately 0.055 points. If Lee had punted a league-average 66 times, he’d have totalled 3,359 yards, an additional 374 yards above average. Over the course of the 16-game season, that amounted to 20.57 points, or approximately three fewer touchdowns scored by the 49ers’ opponents.
To put that into proper context, for seven NFL teams, a 21-point swing would have been the difference between a positive and negative point differential.
Last year, the Jaguars’ Nick Harris was by virtually every important measure one of the league’s worst punters. He was fifth-worst in average punt distance, seventh-worst in net average, and dead last at pinning opponents inside the 20 yard line. If Harris had punted a league-average 66 times, he’d have totalled 2,785 yards, or 200 yards below league average. Over the course of a 16-game season, that means Harris gave the Jags’ opponents 11 more points than they’d have scored if the Jags had a league-average punter.
Comparing Harris to Lee, the 32-point total difference is extraordinary. Nearly 1/3 of the year was within 32 points of an even point differential, highlighting just how impactful a punter can be. Suddenly, it’s easy to see what Jaguars GM Gene Smith was trying to do with this unorthodox selection: capitalize on a significant market inefficiency. Now, there’s no way of knowing whether Anger would have still been on the board in the 4th, 5th, or 6th rounds, at which point the derision directed towards Smith would have been substantially reduced. But what we do know is this: it’s highly unlikely that any other 3rd round pick would have the potentially enormous impact that Anger could on the Jags’ 2012 season, if he indeed manages to punt at an elite level.
So let’s try to project how Anger might perform in the pros. First, here’s a look at the college stats for Shane Lechler, Andy Lee and Bryan Anger:
|Shane Lechler||1996||Texas A&M||Big 12||FR||72||3,074||42.69|
|Shane Lechler||1997||Texas A&M||Big 12||SO||56||2,631||46.98|
|Shane Lechler||1998||Texas A&M||Big 12||JR||80||3,488||43.60|
|Shane Lechler||1999||Texas A&M||Big 12||SR||60||2,787||46.45|
|Shane Lechler||1996-99||Texas A&M||Big 12||Total||268||11,980||44.70|
|Andy Lee||2000||Pittsburgh||Big East||FR||30||1177||39.23|
|Andy Lee||2001||Pittsburgh||Big East||SO||64||2630||41.09|
|Andy Lee||2002||Pittsburgh||Big East||JR||73||3147||43.11|
|Andy Lee||2003||Pittsburgh||Big East||SR||77||3399||44.14|
|Andy Lee||2000-03||Pittsburgh||Big East||Total||244||10,353||42.43|
If you adjust for weather, with the presumption being that Lechler played in the most advantageous conditions at Texas A&M and Lee played in the worst conditions at Pittsburgh, what you’ve got are three very similar punters. And based upon the early reviews of Anger’s performance (including the Jags’ preseason victory over the Giants), it’s looking as though he’s going to be able to live up to Gene Smith’s lofty expectations. Will Anger be worth a 3rd round pick? Most definitely, if he’s able to consistently deliver a top-five punting performance and be worth an additional 20-30 points per season for the Jags.
From a fantasy perspective, the most important thing is to understand the rules of your league. Some leagues strictly reward volume (yards), so in those leagues you want to target big-legged punters on bad teams. Other leagues place more of a premium on accuracy and average, giving credit for punts downed inside the 20 and generally doing a better job of representing a punter’s actual value. The optimal situation for a fantasy punter is Shane Lechler circa 2009, when he obliterated all competition. The key was a perfect storm of opportunity (the Raiders’ offense struggled mightily) and skill (Lechler is consistently amongst the league’s strongest-legged and best overall punters). The result was a game-breaking season.
I’ve participated in a hard-core IDP league that includes punters since 2007, and few players at any position have been as uniquely impactful as Lechler was in 2009. That year, Lechler was the highest-ranked punter by far, putting up nearly 30% more points than the next-highest competitor (Andy Lee). Perhaps more importantly, Lechler was the 46th best player at any position, where Lee was 94th. As in real football, punters can make a huge difference in fantasy football as well.
With all that in mind, here’s a first look at 2012 punter rankings, with Anger and fellow rookie Johnny Hekker (St. Louis Rams) included:
Though Anger’s productivity is somewhat difficult to accurately project, we know enough to predict that he will have a very positive effect on the Jags’ 2012 performance.
First, the Jags’ offense is probably going to be below-average, with Blaine Gabbert not quite ready to join the ranks of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. Star running back Maurice Jones-Drew is holding out, and with each day that passes, it becomes more likely that he will have a sub-par 2012 season. And first round pick Justin Blackmon probably won’t make an immediate impact on the Jags’ passing game, not until he learns the playbook and improves his route-running. So Anger should have plenty of opportunities to punt.
Second, the weather conditions Anger faces in the AFC South should be better than average (environment). He won’t have to kick in extremely cold weather very often, and the AFC South includes two road opponents that play in domes (Houston and Indianapolis). So where weather can have a very negative impact on the likes of Brian Moorman (Buffalo), Anger should have fairly smooth sailing where home/road weather conditions are concerned.
Third, Anger demonstrated some pretty special skills in college, and his performance against the Giants in the Jags’ first preseason game suggests that he’s got the tools to perform at an elite level for the Jags. There will probably be some bumps in the road, but he certainly has an above-average chance to be a top-tier performer.
With those three critical factors all working in his favor, it’s hard to see where Anger won’t deliver a top-10 fantasy performance as a rookie. And for those participating in dynasty leagues, he might well turn out to be fantasy gold.