For the past few weeks here at CBSSports.com, we've been ranking every position group in the NFL, and now, we've saved the most important position for last: Punters.
Punter is easily one of the most thankless positions in the NFL. If you play well, no one really notices, but if you mess up, everyone thinks you should be cut. Also, it's worth keeping in mind that unlike other players, most punters are also asked to play at least one other position that have nothing to do with punting (Kickoff specialist or holder).
If you've ever wondered what it's like to be a punter, the Chiefs gave us an inside look this season when they mic'd up their punter for a game. And no, I have no idea why they mic'd up their punter, but I love that they did it. We need more mic'd up punters.
.@tommy_townsend had the mic against the Chargers 🎙 pic.twitter.com/zua6j8l7tJ— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) January 7, 2021
Although punting seems simple -- you just catch the ball and kick it -- it's not that easy, and because of that, trying to rank the top 10 punters in the NFL also isn't easy. Almost every punter in the NFL is asked to do their jobs differently: Some are asked to kick it out of bounds, some are asked to keep the ball near the sideline without putting it out of bounds, some are asked to boot the ball as far as they can while others are asked to shoot for a big hang time so that the returner will be forced into a fair catch. When kicking near the end zone, some are asked to attempt a coffin corner kick while others will pooch the ball high into the air hoping it sits inside the 10.
Punting is an art form, so let's find out who the best artists are.
Let's get to the rankings.
Just missed: Sam Martin (Broncos), Thomas Morstead (Dolphins), Brett Kern (Titans)
Top 10 punters
10. Cameron Johnston, Texans
If you watched the Texans play last season, you may have noticed that they had one of the worst offenses in the NFL and because of that, Johnston saw A LOT of action. He ended up punting the ball 88 times in 2021, which was the most of any punter in the league. When you're punting that often, there's always a chance that you could mess up or your leg could fall off, but neither of those things happened to Johnston.
The Texans punter definitely made the most of his 88 punts by placing 37 of them inside his opponents 20-yard line, which was the second-best number in the NFL. Johnston was also able to force 22 fair catches with his punts, which was tied for the fifth-highest total in the league. Johnston was one of the few bright spots for the Texans last season.
9. Johnny Hekker, Panthers
Whenever there's a conversation about the best punters in the NFL, Johnny Hekker's name almost always comes up, which makes sense, because he's one of the best punters in the NFL. Since his rookie year in 2012, Hekker has been an absolute weapon and during the early part of his career (2012-16), he was arguably the only weapon (This was back when he played for the Rams while they were still in St. Louis).
Over the course of his career, the four-time Pro Bowler has averaged 46.7 yards per punt, which is the fifth-highest number in NFL history. Of course, yards per punt isn't a great way to measure a punter's skill. Net yards per punt is better and the good news for Hekker is that he also thrives at that. In 2021, Hekker had a net average of 42.6 yards per punt, which ranked fourth in the NFL.
A big reason Hekker's net punting average was so high is because he wasn't allowing any returns. Of his 51 punts in 2021, only nine of them were returned, and his 17.6% return rate was by far the lowest return percentage for any full-time punter in the NFL last season.
Hekker has also mastered the art of pinning his opponents deep in their own territory. Hekker put 47.8% of his punts inside the 20 last season, which was the fourth-best percentage in the NFL.
Despite that success, the Rams released Hekker in March and after that happened, the Panthers quickly snatched him up.
8. Tommy Townsend, Chiefs
As the punter for the Chiefs last season, Tommy Townsend didn't exactly see a lot of action, but when his team did call on him, he came through almost every time.
Townsend had just 37 punts in 2021, which didn't meet the minimum requirement to be listed on the NFL's leader board for best punting average, but if he had been there, he would have ranked second in the league. Townsend averaged 43.8 net yard per punt last season, which ranked behind only Bryan Anger.
As if that's not impressive enough, Townsend also placed 20 of his 37 punts inside the 20-yard line, which means he pinned his opponents deep an NFL-leading 54.1% of the time. To put that in perspective, no other punter in the league even did that with 50% of their punts.
Townsend was so good at placing his punts that returners only averaged four yards per return against the Chiefs last season, giving Kansas City one of the best coverage units in the NFL in 2021.
As an added bonus, Townsend can also throw the ball.
TOMMY TOWNSEND HAS A CANNON. #ChiefsKingdom— Sunday Night Football on NBC (@SNFonNBC) November 15, 2021
💻: @peacockTV pic.twitter.com/VF0VTZvrZX
Maybe the Chiefs should think about moving him to quarterback.
7. Jake Bailey, Patriots
The Patriots raised some eyebrows in 2019 when they decided to use the 163rd overall pick on a punter, but after three years, Bailey is now making them look like geniuses. After a solid rookie year in 2019, Bailey followed that up in 2020 with an All-Pro season.
Following that impressive 2020 season, Bailey made it all the way up to third in our ranking last year, but he's now down to seventh after struggling through most of the 2021 season. Although Bailey had one of the best punting averages in 2021 (47.3 yards), his net punting average took a huge hit falling from 45.6 in 2020 to 39.6 in 2021. Bailey also had three punts blocked in 2021, which made him the only punter to have multiple kicks blocked.
One thing Bailey did well was flip the field. He averaged 45.5 net yards per punt when he was kicking from inside his own 35-yard line, which was the sixth-best number in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders.
One game that was truly indicative of Bailey's season came in Week 13. In a loss to the Bills where the wind was crazy, Bailey had both the longest punt of his career (71 yards) and shortest punt of his career (15 yards).
It's not easy punting in New England and it's not easy punting for a perfectionist like Bill Belichick, but Bailey has managed to make things work for three seasons.
6. Tress Way, Commanders
During the 2021 season, Way averaged a booming 48.3 yards per punt, which ranked fifth in the NFL. That impressive average came just one year after a 2020 season where he also finished fifth in the league with an average of 48 yards per punt.
In 2019, Way finished with the 11th-highest single-season average in NFL history (49.6).
Although Way did show off his booming leg last season, he fell out of our top five this year because he struggled with some other parts of his game. For one, he kicked seven touchbacks, which was tied for the second-most in the NFL. Touchbacks aren't ideal in the NFL because you'd rather pin your opponent inside their 20 rather than on their 20.
Since entering the NFL in 2014, Way has slowly turned into one of the best punters in the league, especially over the past few years. In 2018, not only did the lead the league in punts inside the 20, but he was also the only full-time punter in the NFL who didn't kick a touchback. In 2020, he only kicked three touchbacks making him one of just three punters who had three or less touchbacks on 60 or more punts.
Although his stats were slightly down in 2021, his track record suggests that he should bounce back big time in 2022.
5. Bryan Anger, Cowboys
Anger might not have been the most important player on the Cowboys roster last season, but he was definitely the most consistent. During the 2021 season, Anger had a net average of 44.6 yard per punt, which led the NFL. A big reason why he had such a high net average is because he excelled at forcing his opponent to call for a fair catch. Anger forced 24 fair catches last season, which was tied for the fourth-highest total in the NFL.
Coverage teams love when they see a fair catch, because it means less work for them. Anger also had a knack for regularly getting off huge punts: He averaged 48.4 yards per punt which ranked fourth in the NFL.
If you need proof of just how big of a weapon he was for the Cowboys last year, just look at their Week 15 game against the Giants. During that 21-6 win, Anger pinned the Giants inside their own 10-YARD LINE a total of four times with kicks that were downed at the 9-, 8-, 8- and 7-yard line.
Anger had such a big season that Cowboys rewarded him a new three-year contract in March that's worth up to $9 million. Now the Cowboys just need to think about moving to a new stadium because Anger is too strong to be kicking indoors.
Bryan Anger's punt hit the jumbotron 😱— NFL (@NFL) January 16, 2022
📺: #SFvsDAL on CBS/NICK/Prime Video
📱: NFL app pic.twitter.com/v6QcauOWfx
Anger was so good in 2021 that he ended up being voted a second-team All-Pro.
By the way, if you've heard Anger's name before, it's probably because you know him as the punter who got drafted ahead of Russell Wilson in 2012. The Jaguars took Anger at 70th overall and then the Seahawks took Wilson just five picks later.
4. Jack Fox, Lions
When Fox's NFL career started back in 2019, it didn't actually look like he was going to have a career. Fox went undrafted in 2019 and although he would eventually sign with the Chiefs, he got cut before the 2019 season started, which means he was basically sitting at home when the Lions finally decided to take a gamble on him heading into the 2020 season.
That gamble paid off big time and that's because Fox ended up setting the franchise record for both yards per punt (49.1) and net yards per punt (44.8) during a fantastic 2020 season (Both of those numbers ranked in the top-three in the NFL).
Fox was almost as good in 2021. The Lions punter ranked second in the NFL with an average of 49.2 yards per punt while also ranking sixth overall with a net punting average of 42.3 yards. Fox has a booming leg and his ability to flip the field has made him a huge asset in Detroit. As a matter of fact, let's stop for a second to watch this 70-yard punt that he boomed against the Bears on Thanksgiving last season.
Just a casual career-long 70-yard punt for @MrJackFox#CHIvsDET | 📺 FOX pic.twitter.com/I0qGNLrwbU— Detroit Lions (@Lions) November 25, 2021
According to Football Outsiders, Fox averaged 52.5 yards per punt when he was forced to kick the ball from inside his own 35-yard line and that number ranked second in the NFL behind only A.J. Cole.
The only reason Fox isn't higher on this list is because he struggled with touchbacks. The Lions punter hit seven touchbacks last season, which was tied for the second-most in the NFL.
When he's not punting the ball, the Lions also love to unleash his throwing arm. During the 2021 season, Fox completed two passes for 38 yards.
Lions punter Jack Fox with a DIME on this fake punt! #OnePride— NFL (@NFL) December 26, 2021
📺: #DETvsATL on FOX
📱: NFL app pic.twitter.com/i6bmR7DyBp
At the rate he's going, Fox might crack our top 10 list for best quarterbacks next season.
3. A.J. Cole, Raiders
Only one punter was voted a first-team All-Pro in 2021 and that punter was A.J. Cole, who definitely had the most impressive punting season in the NFL last year. For one, he averaged 50 yards per punt, which is the eight-highest single-season total in NFL history.
Cole's net yardage was almost as impressive as he ranked fifth in the NFL with a net average of 42.5 yards per punt. The Raiders punter also dropped 43.8% of his punts inside the opponents 20-yard line, which was the sixth-best percentage in the NFL last season.
If there's one knock on Cole, it's that he regularly outkicked his coverage last season, which allowed opposing teams to average 12.2 yards per return against the Raiders, which was the second-worst number in the NFL. The big returns meant that Cole was sometimes making the tackle, which he didn't seem to mind.
PUNTER HIT STICK 🕹@AJCole90 boots the punt, then forces the fumble!#KCvsLV | NBC pic.twitter.com/DGUbeBFb1G— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) November 15, 2021
The Raiders clearly know they have a good punter in Cole, which probably explains why they didn't even wait until the end of the 2021 season to give him a new contact. Back in December, the Raiders signed Cole to a four-year, $12.4 million extension that included $5.9 million in guaranteed money.
2. Logan Cooke, Jaguars
If you watched any Jaguars games in 2021, then you probably saw a lot of Cooke and that's because he was one of Jacksonville's busiest players. Whenever the Jaguars offense sputtered, which was often, Cooke would come out and flip the field, which caused opposing offenses to usually start their drives with bad field position. The Jags punter ranked second in the league in net yard per punt (43.6) and seventh in net yards per punt (47.3).
Cooke also placed 28 punts inside his opponents 20-yard line, which was tied for the fifth-best number in the NFL. The Jaguars punter also made a habit of avoiding touchbacks. Cooke only kicked one punt into the end zone the entire season, which was tied for the fewest in the NFL by any punter that had 20 or more punts in 2021.
1. Michael Dickson, Seahawks
After booming his way to the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2018, Dickson has somehow only gotten better. Dickson seems to have perfected the art of pinning a punt inside the 20-yard line because he did it 40 times last season, which was the most in the NFL. To put that in perspective, there were only two other punters who even landed 30 kicks inside their opponents' 20-yard line.
Overall, Dickson placed 48.2% of his punts inside the 20, which was the second-highest percentage in the NFL.
Over the past four years, no punter has placed more balls inside the 10-yard line than Dickson, who has done it nearly 50 times since 2018. When a punter is pinning teams deep, he'll sometimes have to give up some of his strength for finesse, but not Dickson, who was regularly booming punts in Seattle. Although Dickson had a slightly down year in 2021, he still managed to rank in the top-10 in both punting average and net punting average.
It's also worth pointing out that returners only averaged 7.3 yards return against the Seahawks, which is a testament to both Dickson and Seattle's coverage team. That 7.3 return number was the lowest in the league for any team that had to cover 30 or more punt returns.