Picture this: it’s 2011, and the Panthers have the football at midfield. It’s 3rd and 8, and the play-call is a 12 yard pass to, which he - as expected by 95% of the fan base - drops to bring up 4th down. On comes the punt team. The ball is placed on the ground and is grasped by the god-like hands of JJ Jansen - who just happens to be one of the best long snappers in the league - to snap the pigskin to , the punter who will always be remembered more for an arm tackle on than anything else he ever did.
The ball is snapped though Jansen’s massive hindquarters to Baker. Baker receives the beautifully snapped ball and drops it ever so softly over his extended leg. The ball makes contact with his foot and begins its ascent into the clouds. The kick is high and deep, and the punt returner - knowing his position on the field - waves his hand in the air signaling his intent to stand pat without a return. A fair catch signal, if you will.
The ball begins its descent from above. The punt returner looks up in the air, notices the flight pattern of the ball, and takes a few steps forward to avoid contact with the punted pigskin. Not that it matters if he touches it or not, because the Panthers don’t recover turnovers anyway, but still - the returner decides to play it safe on this one, just in case the impossible were to occur.
The loud thud of the ball hitting the turf roars through the silent crowd at Bank of America stadium, as the fans are in the middle of their weekly third quarter wine tasting* and haven’t even noticed that the kid who wears the number one and smiles too much to be trusted isn’t even on the field anymore.
*- This week, it’s a 2009 Chablis that was on sale at Costco. An unbelievable steal for any wine-lover.
The official makes the ruling with a signal that Panthers fans have come all too familiar with after a punt: Touchback. The opposing offense gets to start at their own 20 yard line. All the field position that the Panthers had gained by moving the chains on the previous possession is wasted by yet another horrid excuse for a directional punt by Baker.
The opposing offense takes advantage of this field position - and the weakness that was the 2011 Carolina Panthers defense - and drives 80 yards down the field to score. The Panthers receive the ensuing kickoff for a touchback, and are able to put together a good looking drive that suddenly stalls around midfield. It’s time to bring back the punt unit, and once again the ball is snapped to Baker for the kick.
And, it’s another touchback.
Fans with DVR hit the "Live TV" button on their remote to make sure they didn’t accidentally rewind to the previous possession because it’s a carbon copy of the first one. Once they realize they didn’t rewind their DVR, and they were watching the same thing happen once again, they get angry.*
*- I’ll spare you the "When people get angry..." joke. You’re welcome.
This song and dance was all too familiar to Panthers fans in 2011. Jason Baker was a great punter in 2010 - sadly, he was probably the team MVP - but because his thunderous leg was leaned upon way too often in that horrid 2-14 season, he didn’t have anything left in the tank in 2012 to give the Panthers help in the kicking game.*
*- He was still a good holder for Mare though. But, if I’m Mare, I would pile more blame on Baker and accuse him of putting the laces out instead of putting them in, causing all those missed chip shots. It wouldn't make any difference, but I'd still do it.
So, what’s the point in all of this? In short: the Panthers were woefully inept at pinning opponents behind the 20 yard line last season, and this lack of field position cost the Panthers a lot of points they could have possibly prevented if the opposing team had a longer field to navigate. Enter Brad Nortman into the picture.
Continue reading after the jump...
Nortman is a punter who played four years of college ball at Wisconsin and excelled at directional punting. He can punt from midfield and not have the ball end up in the lap of the guy sitting in the 3rd row behind the end zone. He can do this - as Panther fans would call it - unheard of magic trick in the terrible weather of Wisconsin, which means he should be able to do it in more favorable conditions in Charlotte as well. (This asset will also be useful if the Panthers ever have to play a playoff game in Green Bay or New York.)
While Baker was a good punter if you needed a punt to travel 60 yards, the Panthers don’t anticipate needing that kind of performance from their punt unit any longer. With Cam Newton at quarterback - he’s that guy wearing number one who smiles too much, in case you didn’t already know - the Panthers expect to have drives on offense that don’t stall behind their own 25 yard line like we saw in 2010 when Baker was a serious candidate for team MVP.
So, instead of bringing back Baker - who struggles mightily at directional punting - the Panthers decided to go in a different, um...direction (forgive the pun) and drafted Nortman in the 6th round (the 207th pick overall). The pick was criticized heavily in the CSR NFL Draft Open Thread (And why wouldn’t it be?) because many of us thought the Panthers should have taken, the punter from Georgia (because SEC punters are soooo much better than Big 10 punters).*
*- As a side note, we really need therapy if we’re going to heavily criticize the team for picking one punter over another one in the bottom of the 6th round.
Considering the fact that Drew Butler was available at the time we made the Nortman pick (and considering the fact that Butler went undrafted), why did the Panthers choose Nortman instead? What does he bring to the table that Butler doesn’t? I mean, it was foolish to draft someone over Butler, right? We did spend one of our 30 visits on Butler, after all.
Below you will find the career stats for Nortman, which should help us understand why the Panthers picked him instead of one of the other punters who were available.
As you can see, his punting average isn't exactly elite when compared to most guys who could have been had as a UDFA. I’m sure you’re saying right now - that is, if you’re still even reading this breakdown about punters - that we could have picked Butler and his 45.2 career punt average*, but the Panthers were interested in something far more valuable than how many average yards the ball travels when kicked.
* - It's only 3 yards more than Nortman’s 42.1 average, i.e. - not that big of a deal.
If you're curious as to what drew the Panthers to the idea of taking Nortman instead of another punter, then take a look at this statistic:
Yes, Panthers fans, Nortman averages 14 yards per carry. That’s higher than all our other RB’s combined! That’s some serious offensive firepower, y’all! I can’t wait to see us run the fake punt with Nortman when we’re all but guaranteed a 14 yard gain every single time we run the play! Goodbye 3rd and 12 draw to the TE, and hello 4th and 12 fake punt for a first down! Can you feel the excitement? I know I sure can.
While Nortman didn't participate in the 2012 NFL Combine*, he did show off his athleticism at his pro day when he ran a 4.78 40 and had an impressive 35" vertical leap. He also put up 12 reps on the bench press, a feat that had one anonymous scout saying "I'm surprised this kid isn't being looked at as a wideout at the next level. He's like Danny Coale on steroids. It's scary."**
* - I don't know why he didn't. Perhaps he was afraid of showing everyone else up with him being a punter and all.
** - It's possible that I made this quote up.
His amazing 6.81 time in the 3-cone drill shows his ability to quickly get in and out of cuts, something that all teams treasure in their punter. Add these figures with his performance running the football and it's a shame that he didn't get drafted before Bryan Anger did in the 3rd round. Thankfully for us, he did last to the bottom of the 6th round, and based on his performance at his pro day it's unquestionable why the Panthers decided to go with him over the other punters who are nothing more than unathletic scrubs who are hoping to latch on to an NFL team and get paid millions of dollars to do nothing more than kick a football five times a week.
All joking aside, the Panthers drafted Nortman instead of Butler because he has a knack for placing the ball behind the 20 yard line, and pinning opponents deep is a very important part of the game. It’s something that can go a long way into helping win games, especially if the aggressive blitz scheme the Panthers plan to use can force the opposing offense into making mistakes deep in their own territory.
Nortman tied his career high of 19 punts downed inside the 20 last season, and the amazing thing about that feat is he did it with 20 fewer opportunities. Nortman’s "inside the 20" average for 2011 was 41% (his career average is 34%), which is a huge bonus and a major improvement over what the Panthers have had in the past from Baker, who had a 29% "inside the 20" average during his tenure in Carolina (and a 28% average last season) . Looking at this statistic, it’s hard to argue the logic behind the selection of Nortman. Even if you thought the Panthers shouldn’t have drafted a punter at all - at least they drafted one who can bring something positive to the table.
Below is the scouting report on Nortman from CBS.com:
Four-year starter. Possesses a strong, generally reliable leg. Consistently generates 45-50 yard punts in the air, with good trajectory and hang-time to allow his teammates to be in position to defend against the return. Showed improved touch as a senior, tying his previous career high of 19 punts downed inside the 20-yard line despite having 20 fewer opportunities than when he accomplished this feat in 2008. Handled PAT and FG holding responsibilities throughout his career. Experienced in poor weather conditions. Looks the part of an NFL punter, possessing good size as well as reasonable athleticism and strength (12 reps).
May be maxed out in terms of leg strength. Rarely booms punts and hasn't shown the consistent ability to flip the field. Has a methodical catch, step and drop to punt technique that might need to be quickened against NFL-caliber rushers. Didn't always show the greatest mettle when rushed, shanking a few early in his career.
As you can see, the pros outweigh the cons. The Panthers expect they won’t need a punter who can boom a 60 yarder to flip the field, as they are counting on Cam Newton and the rest of the offense to take care of that themselves. They are looking for a guy who can punt from midfield and not have the play result in a touchback 75% of the time, and they feel that they have their guy in Nortman.
As expected, the Panthers brought in a veteran to compete with Nortman during training camp as they have signed Nick Harris to be the presumed "camp body" punter, but he will also serve as a veteran mentor for Nortman since both of them are cut out of the same mold (Harris is an expert at pinning opponents inside the 20 as he’s done it 239 times in his 11 year career.)
Even though the Panthers brought in another punter to compete with Nortman in camp, Nortman will pretty much have to shank every single punt he kicks during pre-season to lose the job. The Panthers are looking for a long-term solution at punter, and they believe they’ve found it in Brad Nortman. Only time will tell, but I think they found the right man for the job, and I think in a few years we’ll look back and wonder why we were so foolish to bash the pick to begin with.*
*- Of course, if you were really bashing the selection of one punter over another with the 207th pick, you probably need to take a closer look at yourself anyway.
If I were to grade the Panthers’ selection of Nortman I’d have to give it an A, because I think it a) fills a need, and b) gives the Panthers an added weapon in the field position battle that occurs every single game. Not since we had the greatness that is Todd Sauerbrun roaming the sidelines have we seen a punter like Brad Nortman, and this is one of those underrated moves that should pay dividends for the Panthers for a very long time.
Be sure to stay tuned to CSR for the final installment of our draft profile series tomorrow as we close with a breakdown of the selection of S DJ Campbell from California.