Michael Dickson was first-team All-Pro his rookie season. This contrasted with Seattle’s actual punting performance, which was below average. By last year the bloom was off the rose. Dickson had not transformed the position, and the fickle winds which drive popularity and therefore modern journalism had shifted. People once again gave no effs about punters.
When, wouldn’t you know it? Dickson started to play really well! In fact he’s on kind of a hot streak.
There’s some disagreement about exactly how to measure the value of a punter. Relying on average yards per punt is simply flawed reasoning. It ignores hang time. It ignores directionality. It ignores field position. Net yards per punt is clearly better, but this is a product of the punter and the coverage team.
In my opinion, coverage teams are relatively similar in quality across the league. This is supported by the fact that the coverage team is mostly made up of young players without a starting position, that only a very few positions on a roster are determined by non-specialist performance on special teams, and that top coverage team players are not paid very well. But I certainly do not discount the role of coverage.
Luckily, since Dickson only punted four times in Sunday’s win we can analyze this with that most obsolete of technologies, our eyes.
The Falcons attempt to spring a punt block on Seattle. Blocking holds up pretty well. There’s penetration, but it’s a step slow, and Dickson appears unfazed. That hasn’t always been true the last two seasons.
In order to attempt a block, Atlanta halved the personnel it assigned to slowing Seattle’s gunners. Of particular interest to us is Neiko Thorpe positioned at the bottom of the screen. (As of the time I am writing this, the All-22 is still not out, and so Thorpe is unfortunately positioned behind Fox’s obnoxiously large infographic showing the score.) He gets a free release. He also has the advantage of running down the sideline Dickson’s punt is targeting. Which means that, if we are attempting to sync up coverage and punt, this shot here, in which Dickson’s punt is right about where a returner would catch it, shows us a best case scenario.
That is, if Dickson punted it high enough, we would expect Thorpe to be on top of the returner already, but he’s not. Luckily, this is an angled punt, and no return is available. I wonder if aiming for the sideline is the key to Dickson limiting returns. 53 yards net is very good.
Dickson’s next punt only travels 43 yards but pins Atlanta inside its 20. This time Atlanta seems to be guarding against the possibility of a fake.
That might explain the fair catch. Though both gunners are unblocked and closing, neither is particularly close to Brandon Powell. Powell is a roster stash who has one 100-yard receiving game, and 129 career yards receiving in two season and three years. His best punt return, going back to 2014 at Florida, is 16 yards. As a pro he has three returns for a total of 16 yards.
He pinned Atlanta inside the 20 again on his next punt. That was particularly valuable because Atlanta received the ball with only 1:37 left on the clock.
Again Dickson is not pressured, again he uses directionality to offset the relatively flat nature of his punt, and again it’s hard to say how good the punt was exactly because Powell did not attempt a return.
Ugo Amadi has beaten his blocker, but he’s the only Seahawk within 10 yards, and one of only three within 25 yards.
On Dickson’s fourth and final punt, we get a return. Powell also gets a very lucky bounce, making this again kind of hard to evaluate. But let’s talk about what we do know.
Atlanta loads up on Thorpe assigning him two blockers. That may be in response to Thorpe being a good gunner, or it may be indicative of a belief that Dickson will kick directionally to his right. He in fact does. Thorpe gets run out of bounds but sticks with the play and is in the mix when Powell begins his return.
The ball first strikes the turf at the 31. It is no more than 1 yard from the sideline, but bounces up and continues more or less in a straight line. The bounce adds about 1.5 seconds of hidden hang time, so to speak. In the above shot you can see the oblong darkness at the 31 where the ball has struck, and the silhouette of the football where the 30-yard line and the sideline meet.
The coverage unit is still pretty far off. It looks to me like Amadi tracks the ball, breaks (maybe) too far right in doing so, and (maybe) even slows a bit when it looks like the ball will bounce out of bounds. That probably accounts for why Cody Barton is closer to Powell.
The return is nothing special. Powell seesaws a few yards away attempting to find a lane, only to be overwhelmed by an onrush of Blue.
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Sometimes I wish I could write 100 posts and post only those which are positive. No one wants to read anything critical after a big win. I intended to write about Dickson because after being hard on the fellow, I wanted to acknowledge that he had a good game. He did, but I really do not know if it’s sustainable.
Punting to me is a talent not unlike throwing a pitcher’s fastball. A punter with exceptionally unusual leg talent who can utilize that talent in the small window before a rush arrives is rare, very rare. Most punters are seemingly of about equal value. Great punters appear to be as valuable as a good player at almost any position but quarterback. They’re valuable, and spending a late-round pick to add one is defensible.
Dickson hasn’t really distinguished himself. I do not think he has exceptionally rare leg talent, at least not raw power. But, kick after kick on Sunday, he was able to find the edges of the gridiron without losing many or any yards out of bounds. That may be the next step in his development.
A team like the Seahawks, who seemingly have a great offense, and a defense which can be good should it maintain its gain on run defense, would benefit immensely from great special teams. It’s only one week, and Atlanta seems to be punting the value of punt returns, but Dickson and the Seahawks finished third in the value of their punt unit. Dickson’s either going to need extreme accuracy at directional kicking, or Seattle’s gunners are going to have to step up for that to continue, but it can and I hope it does.