Name: Toby Baker
NFL games played: 0
Games played for the Chargers: 0
Fun fact: Baker - just like Mitchell Paige - earned himself a contract with the Chargers after impressing in a tryout.
I hate writing about punters, but not for the reason you might expect. No matter what you might think, punters are some of the most important players in football. The ability to send the other team 60 yards backwards in one play can only come on a punt, and having a punter with that skill will win you games. That's a fact. The problem with writing about punters - and especially with writing about college punters - is that punting stats do a very bad job of telling the story.
In my mind, punters are the only position for whom the stats are still back in the 20th century. Here's what the Chargers website says about Baker, stats-wise:
"Baker is a 6-3, 215-pound product out of Arkansas who averaged 43.0 yards per punt over 27 games for the Razorbacks. He booted 27 punts of at least 50 yards, including a career-high of 60 yards. Meanwhile, 45 of his attempts landed inside the 20.
As a senior, Baker averaged 44.4 yards per punt, which ranked fourth in the SEC and 13th in the country. He blasted a punt of at least 50 yards in all but one game, while only three balls went through the end zone for a touchback."
Average yards per punt is always a helpful stat, but it's not all that helpful without context. How far a punt goes doesn't actually matter if it's got a low hangtime, because that just means that the punter has outkicked his coverage, which is going to lead to big returns. Likewise, attempts landing inside the 20 is irrelevant. That doesn't take into account where the ball was being punted from - it's a lot more impressive to have a punt land inside the 20 from your own 20 yard line than it is from midfield.
Two stats matter - really matter - for punters that haven't been mentioned by the Chargers, because these things aren't widely tracked. Firstly, as aforementioned, you need to know about their hangtime. Having a punter who can give the coverage team time to get downfield and in position to make a tackle or force a fair catch is a serious weapon - especially when you're in a division with somebody like Tyreek Hill.
The second thing that's important for a punter that isn't really looked at is how quickly they get the punt off. This is measured in seconds, from the time the snap hits their hands to the time the ball is out of their feet and booming away downfield. Blocking units on Special Teams don't hold up for very long, and a 0.1 second delay could be the difference between firing off a long punt and having it blocked for a touchdown.
While I don't have any stats for Baker's hangtime or snap-to-punt time, a scouting report from NFL.com's Lance Zierlein says that Baker "will need to expedite his snap-to-punt time as it is a little below the NFL average. Hang time can use improvement." That doesn't sound promising, but the Chargers clearly liked what they saw of Baker in the tryout enough to give him a contract. At worst, he'll challenge Drew Kaser to up his game after an inconsistent rookie season.
Here's the thing - punting matters. So do the people behind the punters (at least in this series). So, here's what you need to know about Toby Baker.
Firstly: Baker wasn't always a punter. In High School, Baker played both QB and punter. He was pretty good at QB, too, but it was clear to everyone that he had the chance to be special as a punter, which explains why he won All-State awards for his punting. Despite those awards, Baker didn't get a single scholarship offer from a D1 school. Instead, he decided to walk onto Arkansas as a normal student (he studied Finance, and graduated in December 2016 as well as making the Fall SEC Academic Honor Roll three years running) and see if he could win the starting punting job there, as their starting punter was set to graduate after Baker's first year there.
One slight hitch with that plan, though - Arkansas took in a transfer student to be their new starting punter, which meant that Baker punted just once in his first three years there. After the transfer student had graduated, Baker must have thought that the job was his - instead, Arkansas gave a scholarship to an incoming punter - and if you're a punter who's been given a scholarship, it's pretty clear that the team are looking at you to step in as their starter right away.
Baker kept plugging away just doing his thing, and it paid off. In 2015 - his fourth year in college - he earned the starting job, and played well enough to earn a nomination for the Ray Guy Award (given to the best punter in college) and made sure that the job was his in 2016, his last year of eligibility. One year later, he'd be a member of the Los Angeles Chargers, once again in a punting battle - one with even bigger stakes.