“Pound for pound, the best value I’ve gotten for any player has been Johnny Hekker,” Rams General Manager Les Snead said. “Not just that he’s a starting punter, which would have been a success. He’s a former quarterback who can run some legit fakes – and, oh, by the way, he’s a college free agent who might be the best punter to ever punt in the N.F.L.”
At 6-foot-5 and 241 pounds, Hekker is the biggest punter in the N.F.L., roughly the same size as Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who stresses defenses with his pocket passing and open-field running. With every thunderous kick and successful fake, Hekker upends one perception — dual threats don’t always have to be quarterbacks — and fuels another: that the best player on the Rams (5-2) might not be quarterback Jared Goff or running back Todd Gurley or defensive menace Aaron Donald, but rather their punter.
No less a special-teams enthusiast than Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, while game-planning against the Rams last season, called Hekker “as good a player as I’ve ever seen at the position.” Punting eight times against New England, Hekker netted an average of 52.9 yards and deposited five punts inside the 20.
The importance of that statistic was amplified during the off-season when the Rams’ analytics department reviewed every N.F.L. game from 2016 and calculated the likelihood of a team’s scoring relative to where its drive began. Starting between its 20- and 29-yard lines, a team scored 32 percent of the time. But when it started between its 15 and 19, it scored 28.7 percent of the time, a rate that plunged to 23.3 percent between the 10 and 14.
According to the sports data service Sportradar, since the beginning of 2016, Hekker has hit a league-high 52.8 percent of his punts inside the 20.
“When you see the ball go up, you’re like, ‘yes, Johnny, please my dude,’ ” Rams defensive lineman Michael Brockers said. “Then when he pins somebody deep, and the ball hits at the 1 and goes out, I’m like: ‘Bro, that was dope. That. Was. Dope.’”
Ask Hekker about his dopeness, and he deflects it. He subscribes to the Zen concept of mushin, imparted to him by Fassel, which means a mind cleared of all distraction. Hekker has forgotten many of his punts, and when the long-snapper Jake McQuaide asks whether he liked a snap, he remembers only that he caught it.
“I would like to think I’m a top-10 guy in the league,” Hekker said, “but really I have a lot more work to do.”
During the spring, Hekker grew disgusted when he reviewed all 98 of his punts from last season and determined that many did not land where he wanted them. Again, this was the best punting season in history. Fassel said Hekker has yet to peak, which only reinforces Snead’s claim that he might be the best punter ever.
That claim is not drenched in hyperbole, and does not insinuate any bias from a man who in September tacked two more years onto the six-year, $18 million deal Hekker signed in 2014. John Turney, a prominent football historian, is working on a project about punting, and he said Hekker, three times a first-team All-Pro, has produced a statistically overpowering trail that places him on a trajectory to join Ray Guy as the only full-time punters in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“I don’t know what else you can ask of a specialist,” Turney said.
For the influence that Hekker wields on a game, his capacity for maximizing field position, diminishing scoring probabilities and running a fake, Turney considers Hekker the best special-teams player in the league.
Quite a compliment, but what if Hekker is even more than that? He does not pass like Tom Brady or run like Kareem Hunt or catch like Antonio Brown, or come close to playing nearly as many snaps as they do. Hekker, who also holds for Zuerlein, has taken only 31.9 percent of the Rams’ special-teams snaps.
But when Hekker jogs onto the field on fourth down, his mind uncluttered and his limbs loose, and with 1.2 seconds to catch the snap and rotate the ball and drill it toward a small target area some 45 yards away, he almost never makes mistakes discernible to the naked eye.
And because of that, maybe, just maybe, Hekker does his job better than anyone else in the league.
Sitting in his office, arms folded, brows furrowed, Snead pondered that possibility. He inherited a 2-14 team in February 2012, two and a half months before the draft. The Rams needed receivers and defensive linemen and cornerbacks.
They also needed a punter.
Fassel attended Hekker’s pro day at Oregon State and wanted him. Early in the seventh and final round, Snead mulled picking Hekker.
“The guy actually had a punt in college that went backwards,” Snead remembered saying that day.
Figuring that the 31 other teams had seen it, he decided to take a linebacker.
Hekker’s friends remind him all the time of the punt, against Wisconsin during his senior season. It traveled minus-4 yards. It keeps him grounded, as does what happened after the season, when he went searching for an agent because none deemed him worth contacting.
After signing with the Rams, Hekker began watching film of punters he respected, an exercise that endures. He marveled at the technique used by Thomas Morstead of New Orleans, quiet and refined. He gaped at how purely Dustin Colquitt of Kansas City strikes the ball, especially in a venue as unforgiving as Arrowhead Stadium. He admired the misdirection deployed by Sam Koch of Baltimore, how he would show left, then crush the kick right.
“I revere these guys,” Hekker said. “I need their posters on my wall. They keep me humble. I watch them punt and I think I’ve got a long way to go.”
The craft has evolved since Sammy Baugh let ’em rip 75 years ago, Turney said, cycling through several phases until this current era, which rewards those few punters who can kick consistently with power and precision. The two most revealing indicators, Turney said, are net average (how far the ball travels minus return yardage or touchbacks) and the ratio of inside-the-20 punts to touchbacks. Hekker holds the career record in each, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. (Those statistics began being tracked in 1976.)
To sustain that excellence, Hekker relies on a catalog of punts. A sampling: the end-over-end one that swaps distance for control, the dastardly knuckler, the directional spiral and the famed banana, adapted from Australian rules football. Spinning sideways, the banana fooled Indianapolis returner Quan Bray in its regular-season debut, in Week 1, skidding at the 11 before helicoptering out of bounds at the 7.
Many punters mess with the banana in practice, but few have the confidence or audacity to try it in a game. Hekker’s next trick could be the punt he has been fiddling with: It spins as if kicked with his left foot.
“I don’t think Johnny’s afraid of anybody,” said Jeff Feagles, the N.F.L. career leader in punts. “I think they’re afraid of him.”
Sometimes they are afraid he won’t punt at all. By his own admission, Hekker was a quarterback who punted at Bothell High School in suburban Seattle. And the Rams capitalized on his passing talent immediately.
Against San Francisco as a rookie, Hekker completed a 21-yard pass from his own end zone. Then, with about five minutes left and the Rams trailing by 4 points, he connected on a 19-yarder that keyed a go-ahead scoring drive. In all, his 13 passes since 2012 – with eight completions, all for first downs or touchdowns – are 11 more than any other punter has attempted, according to Sportradar. (He has also passed for a 2-point conversion.)
Fassel said the Rams have called about 40 other fakes with Hekker that they checked out of at the line of scrimmage. His versatility vexes opposing coaches who every week struggle with how to set up a runback and guard against a fake. “We’ve been really vanilla against him,” said Brian Schneider, the Seahawks’ special-teams coach, whose team has been foiled by Hekker twice on fakes, after a September practice. “We don’t have much of a choice.”
Hekker developed that arm, and a fierce competitive streak, playing football with his four older brothers. His fear of losing motivated him across his childhood, when he would turn household chores – like carrying grocery bags into the house – into contests.
After high school, once he had committed to pursuing punting in college, Hekker learned fundamentals at a camp in Alabama run by Mike McCabe, a former all-American punter at Illinois State.
“He wasn’t very good,” McCabe said.
As a walk-on at Oregon State, Hekker beat out Ryan Allen (now the Patriots’ punter) as a freshman for the starting job. Throughout college, Hekker returned to Alabama to train with McCabe, who said he now learns from him.
On the practice field, competing against himself, Hekker is no less demanding. This season he is trying for three or fewer touchbacks (he has one so far) and for what he considers excellent direction on eight of every 10 punts. He aims for a narrow alleyway two or three yards from the sideline.
When their offense is laboring, the long-snapper McQuaide said, the Rams will issue Hekker a simple entreaty: Kick it as far as you can. They are as confident in their ability to cover the punt as they are in Hekker’s aptitude for punting it where it needs to go.
One such moment occurred in Week 10 last season at the Jets, when Hekker kicked from his 17-yard line. His objective was to gain 83 yards of the field, pinning the Jets inside the 1. Perched in the Rams’ special-teams room on a recent morning, Hekker cued up that punt.
From the angle of his body, he appeared to be kicking toward the right sideline. But, Hekker explained, he torqued his hips and cranked a spiral left that carried and carried and carried, 78 yards in all, before falling at the Jets’ 5 into the arms of returner Jalin Marshall, who reached the 15.
Among active punters with at least 50 career kicks, Hekker has yielded the fewest yards per return, according to Sportradar, though he assigns much of the credit to teammates for downing his punts and forcing fair catches. Sportradar also furnishes some teams an advanced metric called Percentage of Field Covered, which gauges a punter’s value by measuring how much field position his team gains based on opportunity.
That punt against the Jets reaped a value of 81.9 percent, gaining 68 of 83 yards. For his career, Hekker’s punts have a value of 63.4 percent, best in the N.F.L. since 2000, when Sportradar started collecting data.
But in a testament to the Rams’ overall improvement, Hekker’s 25 punts are his fewest through seven games across his career.
He will accept more victories for a less strenuous workday, for fewer opportunities to prove what Snead has come to believe.
“Take football out of it,” he said. “Johnny does his job as well as whoever just won the Nobel Prize in economics, you know what I mean? That guy might make more of an impact for more people on the planet, but Johnny does his job as good as those people do. It just happens to be punting.”