Last week’s announcement that the Steelers signed punter Brad Wing to a one-year contract extension is puzzling to say the least. No matter how you sort the 2014 punting statistics in the key categories, Wing’s first year with the Steelers was underwhelming at best. To display a vote of confidence to a middling performer by signing him to a contract extension so soon seems odd.
While Wing did appear in all 16 games last season – no small feat for a Steelers’ punter in recent years – his punting averages (43.7 gross and 38.8 net) ranked in the bottom third of the league. Of his 61 punts during the regular season, Wing dropped just 20 of them inside the 20 yard line. There were only three punters who managed to place fewer balls inside the 20 than Wing in 2014. And I was actually surprised to learn that Wing had just four touchbacks last season. I could have sworn there were twice that many.
Sure, there’s more to the success of the punting unit than the guy who puts his foot to the ball, but football – at its very core – is a battle for field position. No matter where the offense stalls, the punt team has to give Wing a good snap and keep the rush off him long enough to execute a quality kick. When a ball remains in the field of play, the coverage team can help Wing’s net average by hemming in the return man for a minimal gain.
Now, I’m not saying Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin should be targeting a punter with a high draft pick as they did with Daniel Sepulveda back in 2007. Spending a fourth-round pick on a punter raises enough questions – especially when there are other areas of the team that need to be addressed – but Sepulveda had already suffered a torn ACL while in college. Sepulveda went on to tear the ACL in his right knee for a second time in 2008, injured the knee again in 2010 and was out of the league before the start of the 2012 campaign.
For Wing to earn the contract extension he signed last week, he’s going to have to do a better job flipping the field in the Steelers’ favor next season. If he can’t do better than he did in 2014, someone else should be doing the job.