Spending a draft pick on a punter isn’t unusual in the NFL because field position matters in the league. When that rookie comes in and shows off a booming leg, people take notice.
Michael Dickson bypassed his final year of eligibility at Texas to enter the draft early, and the Seattle Seahawks traded up in the fifth round to take the Australian native and 2017 Ray Guy Award winner. Dickson has made both decisions pay off very nicely in his debut season.
Dickson edged out Johnny Hekker of the Los Angeles Rams as the NFL’s top punter in 2018 in voting released Friday by a panel of 10 writers for The Associated Press. Dickson received four first-place votes and was the only punter listed on every ballot.
“When’s the last time a rookie topped any of the position rankings? Who knows?” Dallas-based Schuyler Dixon said. “When’s the last time a punter skipped his final season of eligibility for the draft? This former Texas Longhorn is a generational talent.”
Dickson, who has had a long punt of 69 yards this season, is second in gross punting averaging at 48.7 yards. But the rookie easily leads the NFL with a net average of 44.2 yards. He’s also placed 20 punts inside an opponent’s 20. Dickson was voted the NFC’s special teams player for November thanks to his leg.
“Spending a fifth-round draft pick on the Aussie from the Texas Longhorns has turned into a key move in Seattle’s unexpectedly solid season,” New York-based lead NFL writer Barry Wilner said.
Hekker, who finished fourth in these rankings in 2017, received two first-place votes. His biggest challenge comes from playing for a team with a high-powered offense that just doesn’t need him much. Luckily, Hekker keeps finding ways to make himself valuable.
“He’s a four-tool punter,” said Philadelphia-based Rob Maaddi. “Hekker can run or throw for a first down on fake punts, and he has also made an extra point and field goal this season. His net average being fifth is just an added bonus.”
In all, 17 punters received at least one vote, with only five receiving at least one first-place vote.
Brett Kern of the Tennessee Titans, who earned his first Pro Bowl nod in 2017 when he also the top punter in these rankings , joined Hekker receiving two first-place votes and finished third. Kern is fourth with a gross average of 40.5 yards with his net taking a hit from a struggling punt coverage unit. But the 11-year veteran still has a strong leg, with a long of 62 yards this season.
“Forget drafting Tim Tebow or trading Jay Cutler, Josh McDaniels’ head coaching legacy in Denver was inexplicably waiving Kern, who landed on Tennessee’s roster and has been nothing but sensational for the last decade,” said Denver-based Arnie Stapleton.
No punter has had as many chances this season as Andy Lee of Arizona, not that usage is limiting his effectiveness. Lee finished fourth with a leg that has a long punt of 64 yards this season.
“Lee is a three-time Pro Bowl pick and could be in for another trip with another solid season,” New York-based Dennis Waszak Jr. said. “With Arizona’s offense struggling as the worst-ranked unit in the league, Lee has been plenty busy while punting an NFL-leading 71 times, and his 48.5 gross average and 41.7 net both rank near the top.”
Cameron Johnston of Philadelphia finished fifth as the other punter to receive a first-place vote. New York-based Simmi Buttar noted the Australia native is tied for the league lead in gross average with Dickson and has a long punt of 68 yards.
Washington’s Tress Way and Dustin Colquitt of the Chiefs tied for sixth. San Francisco-based Josh Dubow noted no punter has been better than Way at pinning teams deep, with nearly 60 percent of his punts downed inside the 20.
“No one has even approached that mark in nearly three decades,” Dubow said.
Colquitt, like Hekker, simply doesn’t get many chances to punt. Wilner says, yes, Colquitt could get rusty with how well the Chiefs move the ball, but the punter remains one of the NFL’s best.
Sam Koch is a 13-year veteran for Baltimore yet remains a factor for the Ravens and came in eighth. He finished just ahead of a second-year punter in Matt Haack of Miami. The Dolphins keep Haack pretty busy, but he has put 31 kicks inside the 20 to finish ninth.
Rigoberto Sanchez of the Colts came in 10th, and he has the second-best net average at 42.8 yards that cannot be ignored.
“Don’t usually look at indoor kickers, but Sanchez has given up a total of 63 return yards,” Wilner said.
1. Michael Dickson, Seahawks
2. Johnny Hekker, Rams
3. Brett Kern, Titans
4. Andy Lee, Cardinals
5. Cameron Johnston, Eagles
t-6. Dustin Colquitt, Chiefs
t-6. Tress Way, Washington
8. Sam Koch, Ravens
9. Matt Haack, Dolphins
10. Rigoberto Sanchez, Colts
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