There may be no position in American football that receives less fanfare than that of a punter. I’d like to take a moment to shine some light on one of them: Johnny Hekker. A veteran punter for the Los Angeles Rams out of Oregon State and former high school quarterback for Bothell High School of the greater Seattle metropolitan area, Hekker went undrafted in 2012 before signing with the then St. Louis Rams.
That may have been the best signing of the 2012 class for rookie general manager Les Snead.
Simply put, Hekker is NFL punting royalty. The man has four All-Pros to his name and is a member of the 2010 NFL all-decade team.
Many fans loath Super Bowl LIII (53) for its lack of scoring but, while the Rams wilted, Hekker shined. That night, Hekker punted nine times. Two punts were returned for a total of two yards. His net was 46.1 yards. Five punts were downed inside the 20 with zero touchbacks. He set a Super Bowl record with a 65-yard punt. Hekker finished his 2018 season with a very solid outing. That game, however, would be the start of a turn in his career.
HEKKER: BY THE NUMBERS
Pro Football Focus (PFF) punting data is available dating back to 2013, Hekker’s second season. In that time, there are some noticeable trends. For example, median punting grades among qualified punters were on a slight downward trend from 2013-2018 but have risen in each of the past two seasons.
Alternatively, top five punting grade averages saw steep declines from 2013-2018 with marginal upwards trends since 2019.
With these trends in mind, we can observe Hekker’s grades dating back to his second season.
Johnny Hekker was ranked as a top-five punter by PFF in 2013-2016 and 2018 (6th in 2017). Considering that average punting grades have decreased among the top five punters over that time frame, a reasonable expectation would be to expect his grades to decline, as they have. The decline relative to his peers, however, tells a more accurate story. Hekker plummeted from the second-ranked punter in 2018 to the 12th in 2019. He continued that free fall into 2020, finishing as the 21st ranked punter. To better understand why we need to examine both seasons.
GAME BY GAME: 2019 AND 2020 GRADES
2019 in isolation can largely be chalked up as a down season. Nearly all NFL players will have a similar experience if they play for an extended period of time. When compared with 2020, a troubling picture begins to form.
Including the playoffs, Hekker punted in 17 games in 2020. His first eight games (Weeks 1-10) resemble improvement from 2019 with a grade of 72 through Week 10 and the 10th ranked punter among those qualified. Beginning in Week 11 in Tampa, his numbers fall off a cliff. From Week 11 through the divisional playoff, Hekker’s grade sat at 50.9, second-worst among qualifying punters over the same period. What changed?
No stand-alone stat can tell a full story. This is especially true of punting. A 31-yard punt downed at the 19 yard-line has a better net outcome than a 50-yard punt that results in a touchback. Average yards per punt does not factor in the outkicking of coverage or whether or not a punt is returnable. Five seconds of hangtime is impressive out-of-context, but useless if the ball only goes 30 yards unless the offense happens to be punting from inside their opponent’s territory.
Context in punting data may be more important than for any other position in football. Over Hekker’s first eight games, his percentage of returned punts was 25 percent and his average hangtime sat at 4.41 seconds. Over the final nine, both numbers went in opposite directions. His return percentage skyrocketed to 44.2 percent and average hangtime dropped to 4.25 seconds. This is causation, not just correlation. The sample sizes were relatively similar: 36 punts through Week 10 and 43 punts after.
The Rams never placed Hekker on the injury report through the 2020 season. While NFL teams are not immune to misreporting injuries (ahem Seattle), there’s no written evidence he was hurt.
To continue our journey, we need to dive into the tape. We will look at two games that I believe define Hekker’s 2020 season-best: Week 4 versus the New York Giants and the Wildcard playoff in Seattle against the Seahawks.
WEEK 4 vs. NEW YORK GIANTS
Hekker’s first punt is a 61-yard bomb that hangs in the air for almost 5 seconds. The coverage is slightly outkicked and leads to a return of 15 yards. A net of 46 yards, is a good, but not great, result for an open field punt.
His second punt of the day was another open field bomb of 58 yards, landing right near the New York goal line. The returner fakes a catch, spoofing the coverage team and enabling the ball to bounce into the endzone. This punt nets only 38 yards, but Hekker does his job.
The third punt is an open field 46-yarder that is returned for 9 yards, a 37-yard net. The ball hangs long enough for the coverage team to swarm the returner, but they fail to do so adequately. An extra two-tenths of a second of hangtime would make this a great punt, but Hekker handles his business while the gunners do not.
The fourth punt is yet another open field bomb of 60 yards. New York brings pressure, speeding up Hekker’s punting process. The ball is over kicked and sails out the back of the endzone for a net of 40 yards.
The fifth and final punt is a long, open field, 54-yarder that lands at the New York 14. This punt hangs for nearly 5 seconds but slightly out-kicks the coverage. That, combined with an experienced returner, leads to a 6-yard return and a 48-yard net. With every second precious for NY late in the game, the outcome is a net positive as the return bleeds a few extra seconds off the clock.
This performance is what Hekker’s fans and coaches have come to expect over his 9-year career. While the end results are not perfect, nearly every punt is a bomb that gives the coverage team an opportunity to do their job and flips the field for the Rams defense. The margins between an elite punt and a solid punt are razor-thin, and sometimes beyond the control of the punter. PFF awards Hekker with a grade of 69.1, a quality grade for a quality outing. Next, we’ll look at Hekker’s seven punt wildcard performance in Seattle.
WILDCARD @ SEATTLE
His first punt is an open field 40-yarder that hits at the 20 and bonces laterally out-of-bounds. It is a short kick that nets 40 with the same end result as a touchback. Hekker isn’t rushed. The coverage has outrun the punt, often a sign of a poor kick. This punt was recorded as one of his two punts inside the 20.
The second punt is an example of why general punting stats alone do not accurately describe the quality of a kick. The ball travels at a low trajectory for 39 yards, hitting at the 20 and taking a few hops to the 10 where it is picked up and returned for 10 yards. Hekker outkicks his coverage due to a line drive punt. The returner originally wants to let the ball go, rather than run under it, but the bounce enables a return. This was the second of Hekker’s two punts inside the 20. Not good.
The third punt is an open field 44-yard boot from the Rams 7-yard line. In this instance, negating a return is paramount. Hekker skies the kick, the gunners create a triangle around the returner, and a fair catch is forced at the Seattle 49. The stats won’t show it, but this is an excellent punt in the context of the game.
The fourth punt is a well-kicked open field sky-ball that goes for 45 yards. The punt is placed near the sideline. While the punt is returned, this is largely due to a failure on the coverage team. The weak side gunner is blocked away from the returner and takes a bad angle, approaching him from the side. The strong side gunner is blocked to the ground out of the play, nowhere to be found. The punt nets 37 yards, but Hekker has done his job.
Hekker’s fifth punt is an ugly one. Officially, it is a 46-yard open field punt that bounces into the sideline. The ball hits down at the Seattle 44, having traveled just 37 yards before taking a Rams bounce to the 35. This is a dreadful open field punt that is salvaged only by a bounce out-of-bounds. Had the ball bounced in any other direction, either the stats would show a very short punt, or there would have been a return. This is Hekker’s worst punt of the day.
The sixth punt is another ugly open fielder. The ball hits at the Seattle 46, just 34 yards before taking a Rams roll to the Seattle 31 for an additional 15 yards. The returner backs off because the kick is short, letting it bounce. This time, the coverage team is awaiting, and the returner opts to not take it on the bounce. Hekker is bailed out by his coverage team and another lucky bounce.
The seventh and final Hekker punt of the game is another poor open field punt. The ball lands at the Seattle 34 having traveled 37 yards. His process is rushed as the personal protector is nearly blocked into the punt. The kick has enough hangtime for the coverage to get around it, but the ball bounces towards the Seattle endzone. It is picked up by the returner at the 27 and take to the Seattle 35 where the ball is fumbled and recovered by the Rams. The stat sheet records a 44-yard punt with a 35-yard net.
Joe buck sums up Hekker’s performance in the wildcard round well with his call on the seventh punt: “Another ugly punt. Hekker has really not hit many good ones (today).” While a few were rushed processes, the majority were just bad balls. Hekker lacked command on the ball that he showed early in his career and even in the first half of 2020.
SO, WHAT CHANGED?
Above all else, Hekker lacked any consistency over the final nine games of 2020. His booming leg was still there, evidenced by multiple 60 plus yard bombs over that time span. Unlike previous seasons, there were far more short, ugly punts in between them.
WELL, SHOULD THE RAMS MOVE ON?
This is a question the Rams are asking as well, and the answer should come following the preseason. This offseason, Los Angeles signed veteran punter Corey Bojorquez, formerly of the Bills, to compete with Hekker. From 2013-2020, STL/LA had never brought in veteran competition with regular-season experience at the punter position. Should Hekker not improve this preseason from his dismal finish to 2020, he will likely be trying to right the ship in another uniform.