FanPost

Matt Araiza, "Punt God" - to Draft or Not to Draft

I have seen so many posts on this site by fans clamoring to draft Araiza in early to mid rounds.

I have posted many times lately that I wouldn't draft him before the 5th round compensatory picks, and the Chargers don't currently have one of those, meaning I would use any of their current picks earlier than the 6th round on Araiza.

Why do I think this? That's why I wanted to make this post, so we don't have to rehash this stuff in multiple threads and can perhaps have some interesting and focused discussion about the subject.

Punt Coverage Matters

Per PFF, 34 punters attempted at least 20 punts in 2021. Some data on Long and his relative performance to the leaders:

  • Cole (LV) led the league in yards per punt at 50.0. Long was #20 at 45.5. Difference of 4.5 yards per punt.
  • Anger (DAL) led the league in average net yards per punt at 45.1. Long was last at 37.6. Difference of 7.5 yards per punt, but it must be noted that the coverage team affects this as much or more than the punter.
  • Charlton (JAX) led the league in average hangtime per punt at 4.54 seconds. Long was tied for #19 at 4.2 seconds. Difference of 0.34 seconds per punt.

Being #34 in net punting average but middle of the pack in both yards per punt and hangtime supports the notion that the coverage team was as much or more to blame for the poor net average. That also seems to be supported by this data:

  • The number of Long's punts that were downed (4, tied for #30) or resulted in fair catches (5, #34) were low.
  • The percentage of Long's punts returned (63%) was #1 and the average yards per return (11.1) was #3.

Protection Matters, Too

It should also be pointed out that Long's averages all suffer from the fact that 1 of his 46 punts was blocked, which was the fault of his protection, not his own fault. In fact, in addition to the coverage team, poor protection could also be a factor in poor punting performance, if it was speeding him up.

I don't know of an easy way to find metrics about how good protection was on the punt unit.

Chargers Punt Team Grades

Here are PFF's grades for the 32 Chargers players it shows as playing at least 1 snap in punt coverage in 2021:

Player Pos Punt Cov Snaps PFF ST Grade
Ty Long
P 51 63.5
Matt Overton
LS 51 72.8
Chris Rumph II
Edge 50 56.1
Nick Niemann
LB 50 81.1
Stephen Anderson
TE 50 71.8
Kemon Hall
CB 46 52.3
Drue Tranquill
LB 37 73.2
Alohi Gilman
S 32 69.4
Amen Ogbongbemiga
LB 28 52.2
Justin Jackson
RB 24 62.4
Tre' McKitty
TE 19 75.3
Tevaughan Campbell
CB 16 61.1
Gabe Nabers
FB 16 58.9
Kyler Fackrell
Edge 14 77.8
Cole Christiansen
LB 13 64.5
Ryan Smith
CB 13 58.0
Davontae Harris
CB 11 63.3
Trey Marshall
S 9 43.3
Josh Palmer
WR 7 49.5
Larry Rountree III
RB 7 52.1
Maurice Ffrench
WR 5 72.6
Kiondre Thomas
CB 2 52.1
Trey Pipkins
T 1 51.0
Donald Parham
TE 1 62.1
Rashawn Slater
T 1 62.1
Kyzir White
LB 1 69.5
Scott Quesenberry
CB 1 62.9
Tristan Vizcaino
PK 1 60.5
Storm Norton
T 1 56.9
Matt Feiler
G 1 64.2
Michael Schofield III
G 1 61.9
Oday Aboushi
G 1 62.3

Roughly 42% of the punt coverage snaps were played by players with worse special teams grades than Long's. However, most of these players played on multiple special teams units, and these grades are for the entirety of their special teams play. I don't know of a data source that isolates punt coverage performance/data.

Anyway, IMO this seems to illustrate that the punt unit's poor performance wasn't just about Long himself. This aligns with the other data I posted above.

Value of the Punter

So just how valuable is the punter, anyway? People like to talk about things in generalities, like "flipping the field," for example, and how valuable that is. Let's see if we can quantify that value.

Value of the Punter - Expected Point Value

The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective published an article on this: Assessing the Value of NFL Punters.

This quote does not support the idea that punters are particularly valuable:

Now we can see which punters make the biggest difference over average in expected point value. The table below shows the total expected points over average contributed by a punter over the last five seasons, with a minimum of 20 punts attempted. Over the last five seasons, the punter who has most positively impacted his team has been Thomas Morstead of the New Orleans Saints with 11.03 points added over average. On the reverse side, we have the poorest punters in the NFL through 2011, including Jason Baker of the Carolina Panthers. On average, each punt he took cost his team .46 points compared to a league-average punter.

What should be striking here is that Morstead has only been able to add 11.03 points over four seasons and most of the 2013 season, equivalent to 2.32 points over average each season. For comparison, the average NFL team scores 371.85 points a season.

Value of the Punter - Wins Above Average

In this thread, @ibanezsam posted a link to this article: The relationship between punting and winning in the NFL. That article suggests that the wins above average generated for the best punter in the league in a typical season is less than 1.

The article doesn't compare this to other positions, but I have to assume this is less than every position on both offense and defense.

Value of the Punter - Approximate Value

Another metric we can use is Approximate Value. AV is a flawed metric, as most are, but it is a simple and available proxy for value.

Here are the first team All Pro punters for the past 10 seasons, and their AV in those seasons and in their careers:

  • 2021 - Cole, LV - AV = 4 in 2021, average AV = 2.33 in 3 seasons
  • 2020 - Bailey, NE - AV = 3 in 2021, average AV = 2.00 in 3 seasons
  • 2019 - Kern, TEN - AV = 3 in 2021, average AV = 2.43 in 14 seasons
  • 2018 - Dickson, SEA - AV = 3 in 2021, average AV = 3.0 in 4 seasons
  • 2017 - Hekker, LAR - AV = 3 in 2021, average AV = 2.80 in 10 seasons
  • 2016 - Hekker, LAR - AV = 3 in 2021, average AV = 2.80 in 10 seasons
  • 2015 - Hekker, LAR - AV = 4 in 2021, average AV = 2.80 in 10 seasons
  • 2014 - McAfee, IND - AV = 3 in 2021, average AV = 2.63 in 8 seasons
  • 2013 - Hekker, LAR - AV = 3 in 2021, average AV = 2.80 in 10 seasons
  • 2012 - Lee, SF - AV = 3 in 2021, average AV = 2.94 in 14 seasons

As a point of comparison, consider Ty Long:

  • 2019 - AV = 4
  • 2020 - AV = 2
  • 2021 - AV = 1
  • Career average = 2.33

How about Chargers legend Mike Scifres? He punted for the Chargers for 12 seasons and averaged 2.5 AV per season.

OK, maybe AV is a bit suspect here.

Value of the Punter - Subtracted Punt Points (SPP)

PFF published this article in November: Examining the value of punting amid Matt Araiza’s historic performance for the San Diego Aztecs in 2021.

It is generally positive about Araiza's potential value. This is probably the most positive quote:

In other words, if Araiza were to end up as a top-5% punter in the NFL, we would expect him to save his team roughly two touchdowns per season strictly on punts that were not returned.

But that quote is immediately followed by:

It is outside the scope of this analysis to translate two touchdowns per season to a proper draft position. But it is hard to imagine a Day 3 pick who would have the reasonable expectation of single-handedly preventing two scores over the course of a season.

It is unfortunate that they stopped here, since Day 3 pick can mean anywhere between 4th round and 7th round. I think most support using 6th or 7th round picks, and many (most?) would support a 5th round pick. If that is what they were thinking, then we are probably mostly all on the same page with this article.

Michael Dickson

It is also worth noting that the PFF article shows multiple metrics in which Araiza's 2021 season was second only to Michael Dickson's 2017 season. So how has Dickson fared in his 4 NFL seasons to date? I showed some of his AV data above.

  • He was 1st team All Pro as a rookie in 2018, but has not been 1st or 2nd team AP since then. That is also the only season he made the Pro Bowl.
  • PFF grades and ranks among all punters with at least 20 punts in the respective season:
    • 2018 - 73.8, #5 - note this doesn't align with his honors above for this season
    • 2019 - 64.6, #17
    • 2020 - 82.0, #2
    • 2021 - 65.9, #8

Those grades are pretty inconsistent, though it is fair to note that his worst finish of #17 still isn't bad, and his other 3 seasons were all top 8.

This is a fanpost at Field Gulls that was posted after Seattle drafted Dickson: The value of a great punter can (and has) been understated. It is generally positive, but it also contains a quote that really nails the issue IMO (bolding is mine):

Seattle committed that mortal sin of drafting, spending not one but two draft picks on punter Michael Dickson... it is a sin because the value of a punter is capped, presumably. Whereas any other position selected but kicker or punter could become Richard Sherman or Kam Chancellor (or Terrell Davis or Tom Brady ...), Dickson is unlikely to be any better than Johnny Hekker.

Look at Telesco's 5th round picks:

  • 2013 - 5.12 (145) CB Steve Williams
  • 2014 - 5.25 (165) IDL Ryan Carrethers
  • 2015 - 5.17 (153) Edge/OLB Kyle Emanuel
  • 2016 - 5.36 (175) LB Jatavis Brown
  • 2017 - 5.7 (151) DB Desmond King
  • 2018 - 5.18 (155) C Scott Quessenberry
  • 2019 - 5.28 (166) QB Easton Stick
  • 2020 - 5.5 (151) WR Joe Reed
  • 2021 - 5.15 (159) OL Brenden Jaimes

That is certainly a mixed bag, but there was some solid value in there. I'd prefer taking a shot on a position other than punter at that pick.

Back to Dickson. The question is, what draft pick was this performance over the past 4 seasons by Dickson actually worth? I'm not sure how to answer that. He was drafted in the 5th round. It seems like it was worth it... but would this performance have made it worth it to draft him in the 4th round? I don't think so. Would he have been available in the 6th round? Maybe.

Value of the Punter - Chargers

@ibanezsam has pointed out mutliple times that Staley goes for it more often than the average HC, and this is likely to continue, which further reduces the value of the punter. I agree 100%.

Long only attempted 46 punts last season, which ranked #29 in the league. Sure, part of that may be due to Staley not having faith in the punting unit. But consider:

  1. The Chargers now have a coaching staff that believes in analytics, which recommend to go for it on 4th down more often than teams typically do.
  2. The Chargers have a great offense, which makes it more tempting to go for it on 4th down more often.
  3. I'm not sure which was the last season that the Chargers had even an average punt coverage unit, but it has been a while. A great punter does not guarantee great results for the punt unit, unless the other players provide good protection and coverage.

So, arguably, Dickson would have been worth less to the Chargers in 2021 than he was to the Seahawks, coached by Mr. Conservative, Pete Carroll. More generally, those reasons arguably show that the value to the Chargers of a punter is less than for many other teams.

Where to Draft Araiza?

Let's take a look at where those same 1st team All Pro punters from the past 10 seasons were drafted:

  • 2021 - Cole, LV - undrafted
  • 2020 - Bailey, NE - drafted in 5th round (#163) in 2019 draft
  • 2019 - Kern, TEN - undrafted
  • 2018 - Dickson, SEA - drafted in 5th round (#149) in 2018 draft
  • 2017 - Hekker, LAR - undrafted
  • 2016 - Hekker, LAR - undrafted
  • 2015 - Hekker, LAR - undrafted
  • 2014 - McAfee, IND - drafted in 7th round (#222) in 2009 draft
  • 2013 - Hekker, LAR - undrafted
  • 2012 - Lee, SF - drafted in 6th round (#188) in 2004 draft

Looks like great punters can be found with late draft picks or UDFA signings. No surprise there.

Conclusion

I'm not absolving Long for his poor performance. IMO he is a below average to average punter. But there is no doubt in my mind that his performance would have been better, and good enough, if the unit around him was better.

Given that belief, I don't think simply injecting Araiza takes the punting performance from below average to top of the league. I do think that spending 3rd through 5th round picks on other more important needs should have greater impact on the team's overall performance.

The team has already replaced Long, so that is no longer the specific driver. Obviously, they can still draft a punter to compete for the job on the final roster.

But I stand by my position and rest my case. Don't do it, Telesco. Until the 6th or later, if he is available.

This FanPost was written by a member of the Bolts From The Blue community and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Bolts From The Blue editors or SB Nation.