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Kicker Consideration, Week 13: Punting Jon Ryan’s cap hit into the distance

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

You know Jon Ryan. Threw a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers, headbutted the ground in Minnesota, American Ninja Warrior contestant, Bar Rescue guest and team captain punting bad ass Jon Ryan. Let me start this article by saying I love Jon Ryan, and now I am going to proceed into an article where that caveat will be needed.

Jon Ryan’s cap hit in 2018 and 2019 is too high

In 2018 Ryan will be the fifth highest paid punter in the league. If other rates don’t rise, by 2019 he will be third-highest. That kind of paycheck doesn’t match his future potential as Ryan will turn 37 next season. Ryan, despite being a beloved fan and franchise favorite, is not a punter worth overpaying for relative to the market. If he was before, he will not likely be next year—let alone 2019.

Judging how good a punter is based on tracked statistics isn’t easy. I’ve said before there isn’t one good metric out there that fully captures what a punter brings to the table. In some categories, Jon Ryan is a world beater. Ryan has the longest punt of the year at 74 yards, he’s sixth in punts pinned inside the 20 yard line at 24 while only having four touchbacks on the year, good for 10th best in the league. If these metrics are our guide, then maybe he is worth $3.2 million next season and $3.6 in 2019. But that’s a hard sell when the market average is just more than $1.7 million with the vast majority of contracts costing teams less than $3 million in cap space per year.

There’s little reason to doubt Ryan has earned his current paycheck of $1.6 million this season. If anything he’s underpaid. And at one percent of the total cap hit for the Seattle Seahawks it was an easy decision to keep him coming into 2016 when his contract was extended. The difficulty comes in the next two seasons as Ryan’s cap hit doubles. To answer if Seattle should keep Ryan we should ask a few questions.

How much is a punter worth?

The value of good field position should not be underestimated. Expected points from a drive are greatly influenced by where on the field that drive starts. A good punter prevents your opponent from starting in a position where they can expect to score more frequently. This is obvious from an intuitive perspective. Yet according to FiveThirtyEight people generally underestimate the value provided by punters. The average NFL punter in 2017 has a cap hit of $1.76 million with a standard deviation of $1.3 million. When we look at the distribution of pay for NFL punters we can see their cap hit is quite skewed because of a few large contracts.

If Seattle decides to accept Ryan’s current contract as the cost of doing business, then the franchise will go from paying what the majority of teams pay, to being one of the franchises overpaying compared to the rest of the market. This seems unlikely given John Schneider’s penchant for finding and exploiting market inefficiencies. But the same reasoning might worry some of you given experimenting with cheap kicking aka Blair Walsh era and understandably so.

When do you replace Ryan and how?

Obviously moving on from Ryan would be a difficult decision, but with other player extensions on the horizon (Jimmy Graham, Sheldon Richardson, etc) it might become an necessity. The 2018 season could be the last we see of Ryan in a Seahawks uniform baring an extension which lowers his cap hit over the next several years. While Ryan is nearing 40 years of age, he wouldn’t be the first punter to last in the league into his fifth decade.

But if Seattle decides to move on from Ryan, that presents it’s own problems. Draft, free agent walk-on, veteran free agent, or rehab project all have their associated costs and risks and while the Seahawks saved $2 million in cap space at place kicker this year by going after a rehabilitation project in Walsh, it could be difficult to justify the same at punter considering the value of differential in field position. Can the team afford to lose a second special teams captain in as many years? That may not be an answer Schneider wishes to find out the hard way.

Something has to give

According to Over the Cap, the Seahawks would save $2 million by cutting or trading Ryan before June 1st of 2018, but in doing so the team would lose their experienced team captain and consistent performer. While Ryan’s age is becoming a concern, the greater concern is the escalation in contract given the overall position market. The tendencies of Seattle to both reward long term players and exploit market inefficiencies are coming to a head and which one will prevail is an open question. My gut feeling is that Schneider keeps Ryan for the 2018 season, rewarding him for his performance thus far and granting him a larger than normal payday but after that season I also fully expect the Seahawks to cut Ryan, save $3 million in cap space in 2019, and move on from the veteran punter.

I love Jon Ryan and I wish he could stay forever, but the market for punters doesn’t make that likely in my mind.