When the Ravens inked their punter, Sam Koch, to a 5-year extension worth $12.5 million, they were giving a nod of confidence to the right leg of the former Nebraska Cornhusker. Many people would group Sam Koch in the “elite” category for punters, and he is paid as such, being accredited by different sources as the sixth-to-eighth highest paid punter in the league. And a brief look at his statistics shows a steady player with not too many drastic changes. A detailed analysis, however, raises a few red flags.
Last year, Sam Koch punted 90 times, which is four punts more than his previous career high from his rookie season in ’06. However, it is more fair to analyze Koch’s performance when compared to his 2010 season, which was the main motivating factor behind his five-year extension. In 2010, Koch punted the ball 81 times for a net average of 39.2 yards per kick. When looking at the previous season, Koch’s 90 punts averaged 38.9 net yards, so therefore, he must not have been much worse, no?
In 2010, of Koch’s 81 punts, 39 were inside the 20. That is just under half of his overall kicks.
In 2013, of Koch’s 90 punts, 27 were inside the 20. That isn’t even a third of his kicks.
Before we heap all of the blame on Koch’s shoulders, the offense in 2010 and the offense in 2013 were very different. The 2010 Ravens finished the season at 12-4, largely thanks to their two-headed monster at running back. Ray Rice and Willis McGahee combined for exactly 1,600 yards rushing and ten touchdowns. Many football gurus will tell you that one of the keys to controlling the field position battle is a consistent running game, and the Ravens certainly had that. As a result, many of Sam Koch’s 81 punts in 2010 came near midfield, giving him more or less the ideal situation for pinning an opponent deep. Conversely, in 2013, the Ravens offense featured virtually no running game, or offense for that matter, and they would frequently leave the field after a three-and-out, leaving Sam Koch with little opportunity.
Even still, it seemed a couple of years ago, every punt off of Koch’s foot would be a booming, monstrous offering. This past year, there seemed to be more instances that left you scratching your head than before.
One specific example came in Week 8 against the Browns, when Koch shanked a 25-yard punt in the fourth quarter that allowed the Browns to get into field goal range. Field position is very much the unsung hero of a successful team, and there were times where the confidence in Koch felt a bit shaky. Harbaugh had this to say about Koch midseason:
“Sam will be the first to tell you that he’s just got to play more consistently in games with punts, especially in critical situations,” John Harbaugh stated on Monday. “Sam has punted really well in practice. He’s punted really well most of the time throughout the course of the season. But one or two not-so-good punts in a game, those are the things that cause you problems.”
That came the Monday after that Cleveland game, and for the record, Koch’s statistics improved from that point forward. Through the first eight games, Koch’s net average was just 34.9, so he had to have finished strongly in order to get his final tally up to 39.8. This is probably partially attributable to both Koch getting out of the funk coinciding with the Ravens offense starting to show signs of life after the return of Dennis Pitta.
Whatever caused Koch’s downtrodden beginning, he isn’t exactly a player who can afford to play poorly for too long. After his contract extension in 2011, his base salary has climbed up to $2.2 million for this season, which along with his 2014 bonus of $600,000 puts his actual cap number for the coming season at $2.8 million.
Coming into the offseason, many speculated that Sam Koch would go the way of Vonta Leach and Jameel McClain, as the Ravens would have saved $1.6 million in cap space if they cut ties with their punter. Normally, if a team is looking for places to cut costs, the easiest decisions may come in the special teams area. Not only are the players not normally paid in such large amounts, there is often a very wide pool of similar players who are willing to play for less. As a result, many were surprised to find Sam Koch still on the roster at this juncture.
John Harbaugh has stepped out in support of his veteran punter:
“Sam is our punter. I’ve seen a lot of speculation about that being a cap casualty, and I don’t anticipate that being the case at all.
“Sam doesn’t make that much, for one thing,” Harbaugh said, adding with a grin, “just ask him.”
As you can see, Harbaugh — at least publicly — is backing Koch. But, that doesn’t mean that behind the scenes, the Ravens aren’t entertaining more options. These are some tweets from the Senior Bowl in January, which granted, came out before the NFL had announced the increases to the salary cap, but still illustrate a latent desire to add talent at the position:
Ravens met with several players at Senior Bowl, including big Mississippi State guard Gabe Jackson (6-4, 335), Alabama punter Cody Mandell
— Aaron Wilson (@RavensInsider) January 20, 2014
Ravens met with Auburn kicker-punter Cody Parkey
— Aaron Wilson (@RavensInsider) January 20, 2014
If you all recall, after the 2010 season, the Ravens gave a similar five-year extension to one of their special team standouts. Billy Cundiff was fresh off of a season where he set the NFL record for touchbacks, and it didn’t look like he would slow down anytime soon. One year later, he missed the biggest field goal in Ravens history.
After the miss in Foxborough, John Harbaugh had this to say about their recently inked special teamer:
“If we can get a kicker that is capable of competing with Billy, we’ll do it,” Harbaugh said. “We want competition for pretty much every position. I say that so I’m not ruling anything out, but Billy is our kicker, and I would anticipate Billy will be our kicker for the opening game of the season.”
We all know how that turned out for Cundiff, and an undrafted free agent won the training camp battle convincingly, never looking back. Might the same fate be in Sam Koch’s future?
“Sam is our punter … Sam’s a heck of a punter,” Harbaugh said, “although we’re not ruling out bringing competition in. We can bring competition in there, just like a lot of other positions. … Sam will have to still be the best punter here. We’re going to look to bring in the best punter we can, just like every other position.”
Sound familiar? Let’s see who plays the role of Justin Tucker in this upcoming punter battle, one that will surely be interesting to monitor.