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It’s often thought that younger is better in the NFL, with players putting up their best performances before the ravages of injuries and time hit and their peak athleticism begins to fade. But New Orleans Saints punter Thomas Morstead is running against that trend. In fact, he’s having a career-best year in his eleventh NFL season, and at age 33.
To illustrate that point, Morstead saw a punt land in the opposing end zone for a touchback for the first time this season in Sunday’s game with the Carolina Panthers. It broke a streak of 41 punts without a touchback, which highlights just how accurate he’s been when the Saints are forced to give the ball away. Saints coach Sean Payton hates doing that, but when backed into a corner he can trust Morstead to put the other team in awful starting position.
His career average of 46.8 yards per punt ranks second-best among active players (trailing the Los Angeles Rams’ Johnny Hekker at 47.1) and third-best in NFL history (behind retired great Shane Lechler, at 47.6).
While his per-season average has dropped (see the chart below) to just 45.6, his accuracy has gone up, with 54.8% of his punts being downed inside the 20-yard line. That’s insanely good, even for his standards — Morstead’s previous career-high rate of punts landing inside the 20 was 43.3% in 2017. Expand that scope to the rest of the NFL and it’s the highest rate in the league, outpacing Baltimore Ravens living legend Sam Koch (who has put 12 of his 22 punts, 54.5%, inside the 20).
In other words, for the first time in his 11-year NFL career, Morstead’s rate of landing punts inside the opposing 20-yard line is higher than his average yards per punt.
The chart embedded below compares those two numbers year-by-year, with the gray line denoting Morstead’s average yards punt and the gold line highlighting the rate at which he put his punts inside the 20. It’s remarkable:
But let’s circle back to the present. Morstead has punted 42 times in New Orleans’ first 11 games, showing rare synergy with his coverage unit. Here’s what happened on each of those 42 punts:
16 fair catches called by opposing team return unit
16 returned by opponents, gaining 122 yards (7.6 yards per return)
5 downed by the Saints punt coverage unit
4 punts ruled out of bounds
1 punt ruled a touchback
That’s impressive any way you look at it. It also speaks to the quiet improvements the Saints have made on special teams after overhauling the staff and personnel this offseason; they hired a new coordinator in longtime Miami Dolphins coach Darren Rizzi, who brought in two new assistants with him in former Penn State coordinator Phil Galiano and returns coverage specialist Michael Wilhoite. The Saints also invested in core special teamers like Craig Robertson (who signed a two-year contract extension) while bringing in free agents such as Stephone Anthony and Johnson Bademosi during the season. Rookie returns specialist Deonte Harris has been outstanding when the Saints special teams have gotten to go on the offensive. Saints kicker Wil Lutz has won two games with last-second field goals after inking his own five-year contract extension.
Hopefully Morstead won’t have to punt many more times this season, but it’s reassuring to know that the ball is in good hands when his number is called. He’s already earned multiple Special Teams Player of the Week and Month awards this season, and he just might pocket a few more.