Specialists rarely get a great deal of attention in football. When Mike Vanderjagt shanks a field goal in the playoffs against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2004, he creates an everlasting image that defines his career. Never mind the fact that he is currently the sixth most accurate kicker of all time or that he hit all 33 of his field goal attempts in 2003 — making him one of seven kickers to ever have a perfect season. It is his failure in the playoffs and a verbal run-in with former quarterback Peyton Manning in the media that define his time in Indianapolis.
Similarly, punters are mocked when they are drafted in the first two days of the NFL Draft. When they’re not, analysts make it a point to mention that the first punter has come off of the board. Former Colts punter Pat McAfee had a rocky start to his relationship in Indianapolis, taking a famous dip in the canal in Broad Ripple. He battled the stigma of being a drunken idiot and had a target squarely on his back in a position where fans won’t show a great deal of patience.
McAfee’s image was restored by a different set of on-field actions. The “boomstick” would regularly have impressive punt distances and heights. He spent the off-season creating Twitter videos of record-long field goal attempts that he hit on multiple occasions. He earned a league mandated random drug test after nearly de-cleating Denver Broncos returner Trindon Holliday. In fact, he was regularly in on tackles and touchdown saving plays on punts and kickoffs — something most punters or kickoff specialists simply don’t do well.
McAfee was famously the Colts emergency quarterback and was nearly pressed into action on more than one occasion. In 2016, his final year, he even threw for a touchdown and finished a “perfect” season as a passer. Of course, much of this was tongue-in-cheek as perhaps the most endearing part of McAfee was his big personality (although not all seem to have enjoyed it).
While it seems silly to think that replacing a punter would be a tall task, the reality is that Rigoberto Sanchez was in that spot when he joined the team as an undrafted free agent. Additionally, he joined a team who added veteran punter Jeff Locke as competition in his rookie training camp. Not only did he end up beating out an NFL veteran at his position, he put together an impressive rookie campaign that left Colts fans feeling very comfortable with the future at the position.
“Stepping in for a living legend in Indy like Pat McAfee couldn’t have been easy for Sanchez, but the first-year punter out of Hawaii was in the top 10 of net average in the NFL. Not bad for an undrafted rookie.”
Actually, Sanchez finished the season fourth overall in that category with a 42.6 yard net average punt. 28 of his punts were downed inside the 20 and while his 44.8 yard per punt average was only good for 19th in the league. The average return was 2.2 yards to reach his net. He had excellent hang-time, rarely out-kicked his coverage, and made it nearly impossible for opponents to get a return.
If he does anything to continue building strength in his leg and isn’t forced to punt as often with a better offense in 2018, he could be even better statistically. As a directional punter, he is among the league leaders already. Where can he go from here?