The N.F.L.’s Most Valuable Player Might Be … a Punter?


“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.”

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Hekker’s Banana Punt

Most punters only attempt the banana kick in practice. But the Rams’ Johnny Hekker has the audacity to try the spinning, skidding punt in games. Here’s how he does it.



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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.’”

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Johnny Hekker at the Rams’ practice facility in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Credit
Stuart Palley for The New York Times

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.

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Hekker is always a threat to throw from the punt formation.

Credit
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Sustaining Excellence

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.”

Hekker Stands Apart

Johnny Hekker of the Rams leads in two of punting’s most important statistics: net yards and pinning the opponent inside their 20.






Percent of punts not returned to opponent’s 20-yard line

Percent of punts not returned to opponent’s 20-yard line






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.)