No team in NFL history has had a more successful run of punters than the Raiders. The had the first great pure punter in Hall of Famer Ray Guy. They had statistically the best punter in NFL history, Shane Lechler. And when Lechler left the Raiders after the 2012 season, they didn’t miss a beat with Marquette King.
King spent time as the Raiders next great punter ended much sooner than it should have. He let his off the field antics and his mouth run him out of Oakland and soon out of the league. A tremendous talent became a cautionary tale. But if you go back to when he was still just a budding NFL hopeful, you will recall there was a lot of buzz surrounding his potential.
What we knew about King early on was when he really got ahold of one, he could launch some moon shots. But early on, those moonshots only happened every few punts. In between, it was shank city. In other words, it was all about becoming more consistent.
With King, the Raiders could afford to be patient. They still had Lechler, so they stashed King on IR and gave him a year to improve his consistency. And improve it he did, becoming one of the best punters in the league over five seasons in Oakland.
Gruden came in as coach and before he ever met King, he was already tired of the sideshow and cut him. Then he drafted Johnny Townsend in the fifth round and hoped to move forward. Well, Townsend finished the season as statistically the worst punter in the league. Had the Raiders not pressed the eject button on the season after week six, they would most likely have done so with Townsend at some point.
As soon as the season ended, they signed former Chargers punter Drew Kaser to compete for the job. Then following the draft, they worked out severl undrafted punters including former NC State punter AJ Cole. Much to Cole’s shock, he got the job. He explained the moment that landed him his contract.
“On the last day of Rookie minicamp, which was Sunday, we had a punt of like nine plays or eleven plays or something like that,” said Cole. “Basically I got the impression that if I kicked well, I was going to get a contract and if I didn’t kick well I was going to be on the Southwest flight back to Atlanta at 2:20. They put a lot of pressure on that moment because that’s what it’s about. It’s what can you do in pressure situations, what can you do when all the eyes are on you and obviously I punted well enough to still be here.”
He punted and held well enough that the team let go of Kaser and narrowed the competition to between he and Townsend.
Working in Townsend’s favor is his holding abilities and his familiarity with kicker Daniel Carlson. Carlson had hit 16 of his 17 field goal attempts last season, including 15 in a row. And he did so with Townsend as his holder.
Most everything else about Townsend’s performance does not speak well of him. He was basically the worst punter in just about every meaningful punter category.
Having a big leg was never expected of Townsend. Raiders special teams coach Rich Bisaccia said many times that Townsend is a directional kicker. Unfortunately, the direction of Townsend’s punts often didn’t matter much because far too many times they didn’t get more than 35 yards past the line of scrimmage. And sometimes much worse.
Cole has a leg up (so to speak) in that area for sure. And he’s gaining ground as a holder as well.
“Well, he has a tremendous leg,” Bisaccia said of Cole. “He has a natural hang to him, kind of even on his bad ball he can kind of get away with it. He’s a high-hit guy on his contact on the ball and he’s really improved his holding as he’s come along. And he can kickoff, so it gives us a little bit of an advantage that way with having the ability to have two guys that can kickoff through preseason.”
That kickoff ability is handy. But that big leg is where he will make a career. That and pinning opponents inside their own 20.
“I did the pooches really well in college,” said Cole. “And I know that’s something that caught their eye, the inside the 20 punts. I think that’s something that I put on film in college. And when I got there for rookie minicamp, I think I showed them that I can hit a pretty big punt, good hang time, good distance, and I can control it as best I can. I think I showed them that I have the skills that it takes to try and perform at this level and I just need a little bit of coaching up and get a little comfortable in the system and start to play the way I want to.”
When he first arrived, Cole said his timing was off. He wasn’t able to get the punt off as fast as he needed. That area he said is where he wants it to be now, but there’s still the issue of making good contact with the ball on a consistent basis.
“I just think the level of consistency that’s required at the NFL level is a higher level,” said Cole. “There’s only 32 jobs, you gotta be perfect or pretty close on every single rep. So, just working on that consistency was a big area.”
What’s interesting to me about all this is how much it reminds me of Marquette King when he first came to the team. The one thing King had was a big leg. He struggled with his timing, he struggled with his consistency, and he struggled as a holder.
For King’s part he was far more raw in most every area being that he was a converted receiver. Cole is an experienced punter from a major college program. On one hand, he doesn’t have the excuses for lacking in those areas. On the other hand, he’s much closer to what the Raiders would want from him and therefore wouldn’t require a ‘redshirt’ year to get up to speed.
Cole’s shanks are not as frequent as King’s were in his first camp and his holding is simply a few tweaks from being right where they need to be as well.
Having a rapport with the kicker as a holder is important, it should work in Cole’s advantage as well that he and Carlson are roommates in camp.
If Townsend is to hang onto his job heading into the season, he will need to show he has improved leaps and bounds from his rookie campaign. Otherwise, the upstart, wide-eyed undrafted rookie who came into Oakland thinking he had little chance of even being a camp leg, is going to jump up and take that job. He’s well on his way already.