If they’re being honest, most football fans would have to admit that they wouldn’t recognize the punter of their favourite NFL team if they passed them in the street. In many ways, the punter is both the least appreciated and the most anonymous position, as he is only able to contribute when his offense fails to score. Punters rarely even receive the level of praise that kickers do, without the ability to score points. This doesn’t mean, however, that punting isn’t an essential part of the sport.
It is common to hear that football is a game of inches, but few have more direct control over field position than punters. The difference between the opposing team starting their drive on the two yard line and the twenty yard line, because of a touchback, can be a matter of inches. Punting is often measured simply in yardage, but the ability to aim a punt into the corner just before the end-zone is one of football’s most under appreciated art forms. Teams are therefore sometimes willing to pay great punters relatively substantial amounts of money to be able to control the field positioning of the opposing team’s offense and increase their defense’s chance to succeed. Punters may not ever be leading candidates for MVP or first overall draft picks, but their importance to a team’s overall success should not be underestimated, nor should the abilities of the league’s highest paid players at the position.
10 Steve Weatherford, New York Giants: $1,825,000
After playing for the Saints, Chiefs, Jaguars and Jets, Weatherford must have been grateful to gain some long-term job security in 2012, signing a five-year contract extension with the Giants. During the 2010 season with the Jets, Weatherford broke the NFL record for most punts inside the 20-yard line in one season with 42 (since broken). As the Giants’ punter during Super Bowl XLVI, one of Weatherford’s punts placed Patriots quarterback Tom Brady with poor field position, resulting in an intentional grounding penalty in the end-zone by Brady that gave the Giants a safety. Last year, Weatherford also began to move into broadcasting, serving as a substitute for shows with ESPN, the NFL Network and Sports Illustrated, as well as hosting his own weekly radio show during the season.
9 Dustin Colquitt, Kansas City Chiefs: $1,850,000
Dustin Colquitt comes with one of the most distinguished backgrounds of any punter in NFL history. His father Craig won two Super Bowls as the punter for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the late 70s and early 80s, and his uncle Craig had a brief stint at the position with the Seattle Seahawks in 1985 after a distinguished collegiate career at Tennessee. Colquitt was also a third-round pick by the Chiefs in 2005 and has held the position ever since. In 2012, Colquitt was able to place an astonishing 45 punts within the 20-yard line. Making the Pro Bowl that season, Colquitt was able to turn his success into a new five-year contract extension with the team.
8 Thomas Morstead, New Orleans Saints: $1,950,000
The first of three punters from the 2009 Draft on this list, Morstead was selected in the fifth round by the Saints, and has served as the team’s punter ever since. One of the top punters in the league, Morstead’s most visible contribution came in his duties performing kickoffs for the Saints. On the second half kickoff of Super Bowl XLIV against the Indianapolis Colts, he was able to execute an onside kick that the Saints were able to recover. The recovery led to a touchdown which put the Saints ahead 13-10 and helped contribute to their eventual 31-17 Super Bowl victory. Morstead signed a six-year extension in 2012, guaranteeing the Saints long-term stability at the position.
7 Britton Colquitt, Denver Broncos: $2,000,000
The brother of Kansas City punter Dustin (number nine on this list), Britton is the better paid of the two. With the Chiefs and Broncos both playing in the now-competitive AFC West, the two brothers have faced each other twice a year since Britton joined the team in December 2009. While the success of the Broncos has diminished Colquitt’s total number of punts, he had already proved his worth to the team in 2011, recording an incredible 101 total punts and 4,783 total punting yards for the season, the latter standing as the fifth-highest mark in NFL history.
6 Sam Koch, Baltimore Ravens: $2,500,000
After finishing with the second-highest punting average in the nation in his final year at Nebraska, Koch was selected in the sixth round of the 2006 Draft by Baltimore, where he has played ever since. Koch played an important role in the Ravens Super Bowl season and victory in Super Bowl XLVII, averaging 47.1 yards per punt in the regular season and taking off crucial seconds at the end of the Super Bowl by scrambling around the end zone before going down to take a safety. Koch holds the Ravens franchise records for most career punts, longest career punt and highest career yards per punt average, and still has many years left to make those records very difficult to break for his eventual successor.
5 Kevin Huber, Cincinnati Bengals: $2,725,000
Huber was a collegiate punting superstar, recognized as a first-team All-American twice, in 2007 and 2008, while attending and playing for the University of Cincinnati. Born and raised in the city, the Bengals selected him in the fifth round of the 2009 Draft, making him the first punter selected that year, twenty-two spots ahead of Thomas Morstead. Huber’s net punting average rose every year from 2009-2012, and 2013 was his second-best season ever for both total and net punting averages until he was injured in Week 15 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, forcing him to miss the rest of the season.
4 Pat McAfee, Indianapolis Colts: $2,977,000
A seventh-round pick in the same draft as Huber and Morstead, McAfee, like his draft compatriots, has played for the same team that drafted him throughout his entire career. McAfee has gained at least 46 yards per punt in each of the last three seasons, including a monstrous 48.2 yards per punt in 2012. McAfee’s career, however, has not been without controversy. In October 2010, he was arrested and charged with public intoxication and then suspended one game by the Colts, but has had no trouble with the law since that incident. In January 2014, he also tweeted a picture of teammate Adam Vinatieri that inadvertently contained a nearly nude Andrew Luck in the background, after which he was fined $10,000 by the team. McAfee has nonetheless made up for it with his philanthropic work. He has created the Pat McAfee Foundation to assist the children of US military personnel, donated his hair towards the Locks of Love program to make hairpieces for children suffering from cancer or other illnesses, and makes other appearances for charities on a regular basis.
3 Michael Koenen, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: $3,250,000
Koenen had to fight for his NFL career after going undrafted in 2005, following a distinguished career with Division II Western Washington University. Signing a free agent contract with the Atlanta Falcons, Koenen successfully beat out Toby Gowin, who had eight years of NFL experience, in training camp to gain the punting job on the team’s roster. In October 2005, Koenen was also forced to kick a 58-yard field goal with six seconds left in the first half against the New England Patriots, because Todd Peterson, the team’s kicker, lacked the range. Koenen was able to make the kick, which finished as the longest one of the 2005 season. Koenen played in Atlanta from 2005-2010, before signing a six-year deal with the Buccaneers in July 2011. Koenen has consistently put up top numbers for the franchise since then, and still has three years left on his deal.
2 Mike Scifres, San Diego Chargers: $3,875,000
One of the most dominant punters in the NFL today, Scifres averaged over 45 yards per punt for six consecutive seasons from 2007-2012, including a team record 48.3 yards per punt in 2012. He has also placed over 30 punts inside the 20 yard line in a season four times and recorded a net punting average of above 40 yards per punt three times, including each of the last two years for both statistics. Originally a fifth-round pick in the 2003 Draft, Scifres is midway through a five-year contract that will keep him with the Chargers, the only organization he has ever played for, through the end of the 2016 season.
1 Andy Lee, San Francisco 49ers: $4,075,000
While over four million dollars a season may seem like a lot for a punter, there is little question that Lee is deserving of his status as last season’s highest paid punter. Lee has made the Pro Bowl three times and been named to the NFL’s All-Pro Team four times. During the 2011 season, he had a 50.9 yard punting average and an NFL record 44.0 yards net punting average. Lee has finished with a net punting average over 40 yards five times, including each of the last three years. He has also finished with over 30 punts inside the 20 yard line in one season four times, including an incredible 42 times in 2007. The 49ers have intelligently signed Lee through to the 2018 season, ensuring his skills will remain a valuable part of the team’s push towards the Super Bowl in the coming years.