The decrease in the salary cap has made having an expensive veteran punter a luxury most teams cannot afford. Since the start of the offseason, eight of the top veteran punters in the NFL have been released, forced to modify their contracts to take less money in 2021, or have taken one-year contracts with limited guaranteed money. Any punter making over $1.5 million per year without a fully guaranteed contract can expect competition from a punter on a rookie contract. There are at least ten teams who can be considered likely candidates to add a rookie punter in the draft or as a free agent: Dallas, Philadelphia, Green Bay, Minnesota, Arizona, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Carolina, Las Vegas, and Tampa Bay.
Pre-draft rule changes due to COVID-19 have also altered the NFL Draft landscape for punters. In previous years, the top punters would be seen at an All-Star game, the combine, his Pro Day, and then at individual private workouts in front of Special Teams coaches. The current COVID-19 rules only permit NFL teams to see players at Pro Days.
The Shrine Game and NFLPA game were canceled, thus only two punters had an opportunity to participate in a preeminent college All-Star game. The remaining punter prospects will only be seen at their Pro Days. Special Teams coaches are unlikely to attend Pro Days because of rules limiting the number of representatives that a team can bring. Coaches will heavily rely on National Football Scouting and Blesto grades when electing which punters to put on their draft board and which punters to go see in person.
Who are those punters? The easiest way to gauge who is at the top of the list is to see who would have been invited to the NFL Draft Combine if it had happened. Despite the event not being held, there were still invitations sent. Those players are listed below.
Top College Punters In 2021 NFL Draft Invited to NFL Combine
Max Duffy- Kentucky
James Smith- Cincinnati
Pressley Harvin- Georgia Tech
Drue Chrisman- Ohio State
From a talent perspective, Max Duffy of Kentucky was considered the best by many. The Australian has a variety of trick punts in his bag and has the leg strength to punt in the NFL for a long time. He was one of two punters invited to the Senior Bowl. As recently as five years ago, teams were hesitant to draft an Aussie rollout punter. However, the success of Cameron Johnston, Mike Dickson, and Mitch Wishnowsky has quelled those concerns. Teams may consider Duffy’s injury history a significant red flag. He has had several concussions throughout his football career and suffered a seizure before his 2019 Bowl game. The effect of these concussions has been well-documented by Duffy himself on social media. Overall, Duffy projects as a priority free agent with a chance of being drafted in the 7th round.
James Smith is also an Australian from the same punting school as Duffy. He lacks Duffy’s leg strength, but he was still impressive enough during his college career to be the other punter selected to the Senior Bowl. As a rollout rugby-style punter, Smith struggled during the week of the Senior Bowl kicking traditional spirals. He also struggled to maintain an acceptable NFL get-off time (the time it takes the punter to receive and punt the ball). Although these deficiencies do not impact players at the college level who rollout, the change in footwork to receive, set, and get the ball off quickly takes time to learn and implement. The Senior Bowl made it apparent that Smith is struggling to adapt his game to the NFL punting style. It is unlikely that a team will draft Smith and pencil him in as their punter for the 2021 season. He will most likely require a year on a practice squad before he is ready to punt in the NFL.
Pressley Harvin won the Ray Guy Award after a great season at Georgia Tech. He may have the strongest leg in the draft. However, Harvin struggles at times with his directional punting. Directional punting is extremely important to NFL Special Teams coaches. In the former scouting era where punters were mostly evaluated on hangtime and distance, Harvin likely would have been the first punter drafted. In the current NFL, which is full of dangerous returners, Special Teams coaches value punters who can consistently place the ball on either hash rather than punters with big legs. A possible red flag emerged at Harvin’s Pro Day when he measured in at 5’11 263 pounds. At 263 pounds, teams may be concerned about his preparation, stamina, and overall fitness level to punt for a full 17 game season. Despite these concerns, Harvin is still likely to be the second punter taken because of his college production.
The safest pick in the draft appears to be Drue Chrisman from Ohio State. A former High School quarterback and standout basketball player, Chrisman is the best athlete amongst the punters in the 2021 class. Chrisman was flawless as a holder in Columbus, and many teams place a premium on holding ability when evaluating college punters. He has adequate leg strength, but his ability to punt directionally separates him from the other punters in the 2021 class. He checks the most boxes of what teams are looking for from a punting prospect. Ohio State’s Pro Day will be well-attended by NFL Head Coaches and General Managers because of the wealth of talent that will be participating. If Chrisman has a good showing, he could be the first punter off of the board. Given the number of teams looking for a rookie, it would not be surprising to see this happen as early as the 6th round.
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