With the various accolades that defensive end Robert Quinn is (very justifiably) likely to receive when the season is finished, it’s important to acknowledge another Ram that is also making his presence felt league-wide.
Punter Johnny Hekker is quietly having a Pro Bowl-caliber year and deserves to be mentioned among the best players at his position currently. Hekker is grading out as Pro Football Focus’s second-best punter in the league at the time of this posting. His accumulated grade of 27.3 is the highest in the NFC and is second overall behind the 28.3 of Houston’s Shane Lechler. While the Rams have enjoyed break out performances this season from the likes of running back Zac Stacy, defensive tackle Michael Brockers, and Quinn’s own sack partner Chris Long, Hekker may statistically be the most likely to join Quinn in Hawaii when February rolls around.
It isn’t just the advanced metrics that contribute to Hekker’s case for Pro Bowl 2014. He passes the eye test, as well. I had the privilege to stand under more than a handful of Donnie Jones’ punts during Rams’ pregame warmups in the 2010-11 seasons, which was so impressive in such a unique way. Punting is a simple concept, but the “boom” that echoed off Jones’ foot and the resulting squint upwards to track the ball never failed to warrant a “daaaaaammmmnnnn.” However, while Jones had a logical case for the Pro Bowl himself in each of those seasons, his average hang times of 5.3 and 5.5 seconds still trail Hekker’s current league-leading 5.6 seconds. Quite simply, he just flat out kicks the crap out of the ball.
The height that he gets on his kicks also contributes heavily to his impressive net average of 43.6 yards, best in the league by almost an entire yard (Atlanta’s Matt Bosher and Miami’s Brian Fields come in second at 42.8). While Hekker’s gross average of 45.7 yards per kick is average – 14th is the league – he and the punt return unit are largely freezing any and all chances for opposing returners to make plays. The fact that the Rams’ have allowed only 73 punt return yards on 23 returns is remarkable, good for an average of only 3.17 yards. Compare that with the average of 2013 Pro Bowlers Morstead and Kansas City’s Dustin Colquitt and Hekker is in good company. Morstead gives up 6.67 yards per return (80 yards on 12 returns) and Colquitt is similar, allowing 7.11 (192 yards on 27 returns).
In a season that has hinged on close games for the Rams, the importance of controlling field position and keeping opponents in their own territory cannot be understated. As a result, Hekker’s value to this team should go relatively unquestioned.
His biggest obstacle to overcome in making the Pro Bowl this season, however, may likely be the system. From an inter-conference perspective, Hekker has a sizable gap on his potential competition for votes. The NFC South trio of Bosher, New Orleans’ Thomas Morstead and Carolina’s Brad Nortman (most punter name ever?), fall in immediately behind Hekker with grades of 16.2, 15.4 and 12.9 respectively. This season, though, the league is trotting out a new format to their often scoffed-at attempt at an All-Star Game. For the first time, the league’s top vote-getter on offense and defense will become the captains for a fantasy football-style draft. Every player eligible for the game can be selected for either team, essentially rendering conference affiliation obsolete.
While Hekker’s numbers absolutely hold up, he’ll certainly have competition. KC’s Colquitt became the league’s highest-paid punter in the offseason, and Chiefs fans proved last year that they’ll show up in droves regardless of the product on the field. That was evident in the selection of six AFC representatives from Kansas City despite a puke-worthy record of 2-14. Expect his name to be in the mix. Morstead also has potential name recognition after representing the NFC last season and is also putting together another solid season of his own. Lechler also seems like a logical choice. The league’s highest graded punter has been around long enough to perhaps earn the vote of neutral fans, but his 48.6 gross average and 22 kicks pinned inside the 20 certainly make him worthy.
As the Rams gear up to welcome the visiting Chicago Bears this weekend, Hekker’s contributions to the little things – keeping opponents in their own territory and preventing big returns – figure to be an integral part of how this team finishes 2013.