This will be the most controversial of any player on the list, I guarantee you that. There are going to be those that, upon reading this, think "how could a punter possibly be number 10 on a list of the most important players for the upcoming season?" You either think the author has completely lost it or that the team is bad enough that they will have to be punting a lot. While the first one may indeed be true, the second one isn't and that leads to the question I will answer in this article: why is Pat McAfee number 10 on a list of the 13 most important players to the Colts' success this year.
I'll be honest, I wasn't sure about McAfee being on this list, I really wasn't. I too thought that a guy who gets in for just a handful of plays couldn't really make a big enough impact to warrant a spot on this list. But I realized that is wrong. You look at a guy like T.Y. Hilton, who earned the number 11 spot on our list, and you see that he's a guy who will get only a handful of catches every game. But still, he's really important because in those handful of plays that he gets an opportunity, he needs to make the most of them and likely will too.
So that's my reasoning behind putting Pat McAfee on this list - he won't get close to the number of plays that other guys do, but the plays that he is in are some of the most important to the team's success as any. And that's why Pat McAfee, a punter, gets on this list. After all, there's got to be some reason why he's the team's franchise player, right?
And indeed there is. He's one of the league's best punters, and that's not even looking at the impact McAfee has off the field and on the community in Indianapolis. Since that doesn't have much to do with his on-field importance to the Colts, it's absolutely necessary to at least mention when talking about McAfee - he's a great influence in the community and is a fan favorite. On the field, he's a pretty great punter as well. Here's what I wrote of McAfee when we found out for sure that he would play under the franchise tag this season:
"Added to that, he's a pretty great player on the field too. In 2013, McAfee set franchise records with a 48.2-yard gross average and a 40.3 net average, while at the same tying Hunter Smith's franchise record with 26 punts downed inside the 20 - perhaps the most important thing for a punter to be able to do. Matt Miller ranked McAfee as the league's best punter in his "NFL 1000" series. Added to that is the fact that McAfee has at times been the best tackler on the Colts special teams (a trend that hopefully won't continue) and the fact that he was the team's special teams captain last season, and he suddenly becomes a very valuable player for the Colts franchise - so much so that they used their franchise tag on a punter. He's also their kickoff specialist and field goal holder for kicker Adam Vinatieri."
Alright, so right there we identified four areas that McAfee has an impact on.
1) He is the team's punter, and as linked to above, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranked him as the best in the league.
2) He is the team's special teams captain, a role that instantly puts him in a leadership position among the specialists.
3) He is the team's kickoff specialist, and a good one at that, consistently putting the ball in the end zone on kickoffs.
4) He is the team's holder on field goals for Adam Vinatieri and has done an excellent job, as I can't remember him ever mishandling a hold.
I would even add a fifth that I didn't mention before, and that is this:
5) He is the team's long field goal kicker, who may very well be called on this year if the team needs to attempt a long field goal.
That's a pretty big list of ways that McAfee will be contributing to this team in 2013, and they are important ones as well. The Colts' have always had bad special teams units, and that has usually been because of their coverage and return units, not because of their kickers. That is still the case now, as the kickers (McAfee and Adam Vinatieri) are both very good but their coverage is perhaps suspect. Here's the thing, though - with Pat McAfee, known as "the Boomstick," he can consistently kick it to the end zone on kickoffs and often times even to the back of the end zone or out the back of it altogether. That limits the opportunities to return kicks. That's huge.
Punting-wise, McAfee also does an excellent job of pinning teams deep and limiting returns, and even when teams do return kicks, McAfee has shown the capability to bring guys down (even leading the Colts' in special teams tackles in 2011). While nobody wants to see McAfee leading the team in special teams tackles (we don't want him to have to make the tackles in the first place), he has shown that he can if need be. And more importantly, he does a great job at limiting returns. McAfee had 26 punts downed inside the 20 yard line last year (and 3 more in the Colts' first preseason game against the Bills), tying a franchise record. He also had 8 touchbacks in 2012.
Chuck Pagano said last Thursday that historically, going back about a decade or so, when a team has to drive 70 or 80 yards for a score, they will get a touchdown only 15-16% of the time. That percentage is one that Pagano and Colts fans would gladly take, and it shows how pinning teams deep (which comes from the special teams unit) is really important and a necessary part of the game.
We saw back in December of last year in the Colts' win against the Titans just how much a Pat McAfee punt could change a game, and because of that it's also not hard to see why he is so important to the Colts' success in 2013. Though he may not get in for a lot of plays compared to the other guys on this list, the plays that he is in for are certainly important and are certainly capable of changing games. Pat McAfee comes in at number 10 on our list of the most important players to the Colts' success in 2013, and there's no reason to think that he won't live up to the expectations.
Check out our list counting down the 13 most important players to the Colts' success in 2013:
11. T.Y. Hilton, wide receiver
10. Pat McAfee, punter