The New York Jets are enjoying excellent production from the kicking duo of Greg Zuerlein and Thomas Morstead
It hasn’t been talked about much – which is a testament to how solid they’ve been.
After years of futility at both kicking positions, it seems the Jets have finally found reliability in the form of this veteran duo. Boasting a combined 27 seasons of experience, the 35-year-old Zuerlein and the 37-year-old Morstead have allowed Jets fans to discover an unfamiliar sense of relaxation on special teams plays.
The reigning AFC Special Teams Player of the Week, Zuerlein is off to a hot start in 2023. He’s made 10 of 11 field goals (90.9%) with a long of 52 yards, and he’s also made all five of his extra points.
In addition, Zuerlein has rendered the Jets’ kickoff coverage team obsolete through his consistency on kickoffs. All 18 of Zuerlein’s kickoffs have resulted in a touchback. Zuerlein is one of only two kickers with a 100% touchback rate, joining Joey Slye. Because of Zuerlein, the Jets haven’t had to defend a single kickoff return in the four games he’s played.
The discussion of whether touchbacks are truly positive is fascinating. Considering the league-average kickoff return in 2023 is only going for 22.8 yards (and that’s not even accounting for the high rate of penalties on kickoff returns), most kickoff returns get stopped short of the 25-yard line, so it can be argued that it’s actually better to deliver well-placed kickoffs that prompt the returner into trying a return.
However, the benefit of touchbacks is that they eliminate the risk of the worst-case scenario: allowing a touchdown (or any big-time return). Sure, you might lose a couple of yards per kickoff in comparison to the average return, but it can be argued that the risk of allowing a touchdown or a big return carries far more weight than the potential reward of stopping a return at, say, the 20-yard line or even the 15-yard line. There’s a lot more room past the 25-yard line than behind it.
With that in mind, I’d argue Zuerlein’s touchback production is a positive for the Jets. The best thing you can do on a kickoff is just put the opponent at the 25-yard line and be done with it. The risk of allowing a touchdown isn’t worth gaining a couple of extra yards. Allowing even just one touchdown in a season will easily overrule all of those little chunks of yardage you gain along the way for forcing returns and stopping them shy of the 25.
Still going strong in his 15th season, Morstead remains one of the NFL’s best punters.
I’m a big fan of the “pEPA per punt” metric (Punter EPA Per Punt Above Expected) from @ThePuntRunts on Twitter. It’s a better metric for evaluating punters than traditional metrics since it accounts for the different expectations of each situation – i.e. a coffin corner punt carries much different yardage expectations than a punt from a team’s own 20-yard line, so we should account for that. It also separates the punter’s performance from that of his coverage team.
Through five weeks, Morstead is ranked as the league’s ninth-best punter according to pEPA per punt.
Week 5 punter rankings!#rams Ethan Evans has been the best rookie punter through 5 weeks
Blake Gillikin was signed off the street and immediately delivered good result for the #cardinals
The top 10 has settled into a mostly familiar bunch pic.twitter.com/CKxb2hRoHH
— Puntalytics (@ThePuntRunts) October 10, 2023
Looking at some of the traditional metrics, Morstead still sits near the top of the charts. Among the 32 punters with at least 10 attempts, Morstead ranks ninth-best in net yards per punt (44.0).
Morstead has done an excellent job of preventing returns. Only 28% of his punts (7 of 25) have been returned, which is the fourth-lowest rate among qualifiers.
This is largely thanks to his ability to force fair catches. Morstead is tied for the league lead in fair catches forced with 11. From a rate perspective, Morstead is fourth-best with 44% of his punts resulting in a fair catch.
Between Zuerlein’s touchbacks and Morstead’s fair catches, the Jets’ veteran kickers have excelled at taking pressure off the Jets’ coverage teams. After the Jets allowed two return touchdowns last season, this year’s special teams unit carries a significantly lower risk of allowing touchdowns simply due to the minimal volume of return attempts that are being allowed.
Hopefully I didn’t jinx them by writing this article, but for the time being, let’s appreciate the phenomenal play of the Jets’ veteran kicking duo.
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