While he has not quite fulfilled his potential just yet, Braden Mann has shown obvious superstar-caliber upside throughout the first half of his rookie season.
Making a change at the punter position was not something that appeared to be necessary for the Jets entering the 2020 offseason. In 2019, the Jets’ punting unit was the fourth-best in the NFL according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA. In 2018, it ranked 14th-best.
Those units were led by Lachlan Edwards. While Edwards was an unspectacular punter who rarely did anything flashy, he slowly developed into a player who managed to work in tandem with his coverage team well enough to produce quality results.
Here was the main question surrounding Edwards – was he actually a solid punter, or was he bailed out by an excellent coverage team?
In spite of the punting unit’s overall success, Edwards’ individual numbers in 2019 were largely poor. This suggests that he was indeed a product of his coverage unit’s elite play, which means the unit’s productivity was due to crash down to Edwards’ level at some point in the future.
With these facts in mind as Edwards hit free agency, here are the two ways Joe Douglas could have gone at this position.
- The safe, but somewhat stubborn route: stick with Edwards. Don’t fix what isn’t broken and trust the overall productivity, but take the risk of decline due to Edwards’ individual production.
- The risky, but forward-thinking route: move on. Evaluate Edwards independent of his surroundings and understand that he is not a good punter who can be massively upgraded upon, but take the risk of meddling with a solid unit.
In a display of shrewd evaluation ability, Douglas took the forward-thinking route. It’s clear that Douglas knew his stuff regarding the special teams unit and was able to deduce that Edwards was a liability despite the unit’s overall productivity. So, Douglas decided to stay ahead of the game and make a change. Doing this at a seemingly overlooked position was a positive showing of non-complacency from the first-year general manager.
When Douglas and the Jets drafted former Ray Guy Award winner Braden Mann out of Texas A&M with the 191st overall pick in the sixth round, the expectation was not for him to be solid. The hope was for him to be great.
The Jets had been punting the ball well over the past two seasons. It’s not as if they were weak in the punting game. Mann was brought in to push the unit from good to dominant, and to do it on a yearly basis for a very long time – two things Douglas clearly did not believe that Edwards was capable of doing.
We’re eight games into Mann’s rookie season, and the Texas kid has become perhaps the most beloved player on the roster among Jets fans (this is an 0-8 team, after all).
Despite the hype, has Mann actually made a superstar impact just yet?
The answer to that question is “no,” but fortunately, Mann has undoubtedly shown that he has enough raw talent to become one of the most positively impactful punters in football. While he has been erratic thus far, Mann is steadily progressing and appears to be on his way to an excellent career if he can continue trending upward.
Let’s dig into the numbers and film behind Mann’s first eight games as an NFL punter.
The positive numbers
With the Jets offense playing, well, horribly, Mann has gotten to boot a league-high 44 punts, seven more than any other punter. He has had a ton of opportunities to hone his craft.
Mann needs to master the art of hang time to get the most out of his powerful leg, and he has been improving there. From Weeks 1-3, Mann ranked 23rd among qualified punters with an average hang time of 4.23 seconds on his punts. From Weeks 4-8, he boosted that number to 4.41 seconds, which ranked 12th over that span. The league average hang time is about 4.35 seconds.
Mastering hang time is the key to neutralizing opposing returners, and Mann’s progress there shows up in the results.
Over the first four games of the season, Mann had nine of his punts returned for 144 yards, an atrocious average of 16.0 yards per return. Over his past four games, Mann has had 14 punts returned for 128 yards, a more respectable average of 9.1 yards per return. He and the coverage unit have done even better over the last two games with only 37 yards allowed over five returns, an average of 7.4. The league average punt return has gone for 8.6 yards this season.
Of course, we have to note that Mann has three tackles this season, tied for the most among punters with Mitch Wishnowsky of the 49ers. No other punter has more than one.
Brant Boyer‘s previously stupendous special teams unit has crumbled to dust, hanging Mann out to dry with some very poor kick coverage. The Jets have been knocked with 15 missed tackles on special teams (that includes both punts and kickoffs), second-most in the NFL, and more than double the league average of 6.8.
So, while Mann can certainly do better with helping the coverage unit by improving his hang time and placement, his poor numbers in terms of net yardage and return yardage are largely not his fault.
The negative numbers
Overall, the productivity that the Jets hoped to get out from Mann when they spent an early sixth-round pick on him has not been there just yet. The Jets have the third-worst punting DVOA in the NFL (-9.1) while Mann ranks 30th in net punting average (37.5).
The Jets certainly need more out of Mann going forward, but the kid deserves all of the slack in the world right now. As we’ve already discussed, Mann has been gradually improving after a rough start, and his coverage unit has made his numbers look worse than they should be. Some of the punts we will look at in the film review portion of this article will make it clear that Mann has not been nearly as bad as his raw numbers suggest. The coverage team’s awful efforts have put a lot of excess yardage under his name that he had nothing to do with. All things considered, his punting has been relatively average, mixing some “wow” kicks with a few too many duds.
We also have to remember that Mann is not only a rookie, but the youngest punter in the NFL this season (22 years, 294 days old on the day of the season opener). Punters can have progression arcs, too.
Lions punter Jack Fox had a rough 2019 preseason for the Chiefs and could not crack an NFL roster for a regular season game during his rookie season, but here in his second season, he has become one of the best punters in the sport for Detroit.
49ers punter Mitch Wishnowsky, a fourth-round pick in 2019, was graded as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd-ranked punter in his 2019 rookie season and is now ranked by PFF as the league’s fourth-best punter in 2020.
Bills punter Corey Bojorquez ranked 21st in hang time average as a rookie in 2018 (4.26) before leading the league in 2019 (4.54).
Despite the lackluster results early on, Mann has a lot of time to perfect his game and appears to be headed in the right direction.
Surreal tackling ability
Time to dig into the film.
When talking about Mann, the first thing that comes up in the conversation is typically his tackling.
Mann was known for his return-thwarting abilities in college, leading all punters in the nation with 11 tackles from 2018-19. The next-closest punter had six.
That unique skill has already translated to the NFL. Marvel with me as we watch Mann save three touchdowns.
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