BGA: Evaluating Robert Malone’s Numbers

The newest Jet, punter Robert Malone, was added to the roster earlier this week after crushing his tryout with the team. (Apparently, he hit the roof five times.) Rather than reviewing game footage as I would for a position player, punting is one area where you can read a lot into the numbers, so let’s look into the numbers from his career so far.

After the jump, I’ll be looking at his numbers from his two seasons in the league so far, including this preseason.

2011 Regular Season

Let’s look at 2011 first, because he only played in one game, punting five times, so the sample size is too small to read too much into the numbers. Malone failed to win a job in training camp, but was called into action by the Detroit Lions when their regular punter, Ryan Donahue, was out injured. He couldn’t have walked into a tougher situation, punting on a particularly windy day in Chicago … to Devin Hester.

Hester had long returns on each of his first three kicks. It was believed that Malone kept the ball low to try and avoid the winds, but this affected his hang time and he may have outkicked his coverage. His first kick was a 49-yarder, but Hester ran it back 29 yards, which could have been worse had he not made a touchdown saving tackle himself. His second kick was a booming 60-yarder, which Hester actually muffed, but then recovered to run back 80 yards for a touchdown. On his third kick, with the announcers already saying he’d be crazy to kick to Hester again, he again kicked to Hester, who had a 35-yard return, although this one was called back for a penalty. To his credit, he did execute on his last two kicks which were deliberately booted out of bounds for 41 and 38 yards.

After the game, the Lions replaced Malone with our old friend Ben Graham, amidst suggestions he had failed to execture the gameplan by outkicking his coverage and not managing to get his third kick out of bounds.

While Malone had an impressive 49.0 yards per punt gross average, Hester’s returns reduced his net average to below 25. However, he kicked in 12 games for the Bucs in 2010, so we have a much larger sample size to investigate.

2010 Regular Season

Malone failed to beat out Adam Podlesh for the Jaguars job in preseason, but got his shot with the Bucs in week four after they got rid of Chris Bryan. You may remember Bryan had a cup of coffee here last year and I did a mini-BGA on him.

My conclusion there was that the Bucs may have been a little hasty in getting rid of Bryan (who is currently out of the league). A review of Malone’s numbers suggests that he actually was no better than Ryan, performing slightly below average according to our ANPP metric (explained here) with an adjusted net punt percentage of 63%.

A closer look at the numbers revealed he did show some good directional punting, landing six punts inside the ten (including three inside the five). He was actually more consistent than boom or bust – with just one obvious shank and no net punts of over 55 yards to skew the numbers. The issue of outkicking his coverage was not really an issue either, as he only had one significant return – a 37-yarder.

Looking at his basic numbers, he was down near the bottom of the league – 30th or worst – in virtually every single category. He was only slightly better (28th) in terms of net yardage but was placed in the top ten for lowest percentage of punts returned (40.4%). The ANPP suggests that by factoring field position into the results we can see how he was actually just below average, not near the bottom of the league. However, while his performance based on this was better than Reggie Hodges and Ben Graham in 2008, it falls short of the performance of Steve Weatherford and TJ Conley from 2009 to 2011.

2012 Preseason

Obviously the Jets targeted Malone to come in for a tryout after the preseason. He was in camp with the Chargers, but didn’t have much chance of unseating the reliable Mike Scifres. In this case, Malone – who saw most of the workload with Scifres only punting four times – had good numbers on the face of it. A 44.8 yard gross average would have placed him in the top ten in the NFL in 2011 and a 39.9 yard net average would have put him in the top five. Would this hold up to the scrutiny of ANPP, though?

The answer is a resounding yes, as his ANPP of 68% would be regarded as close to elite if he could sustain it over the course of a full season. That’s roughly the sort of numbers Shane Lechler usually puts up and is the same ANPP as Steve Weatherford had during his excellent 2010 season (before laying a egg in the postseason).

A closer look shows that he had three of his 20 kicks land inside the twenty, with two of these inside the ten and one inside the five. He only had one touchback and didn’t have issues with outkicking his coverage, limited return yardage to a respectable 79 yards on 20 punts. Once again, he didn’t have any major shanks or one-off dribblers to skew the numbers – all 20 punts netted out between 30 and 51 yards.

Conclusions

We’ve established in the past that New Jersey isn’t a great place to kick and the jury is still out on whether the new stadium is any better than the old one in that regard. There’s also the pressure that comes with playing for a New York franchise. In truth, the numbers don’t tell us whether Malone will perform well with the Jets or not. However, some of the signs are encouraging. He seems to be consistently reliable and certainly seems to be punting well at the moment.

One other factor is that the Jets have a highly regarded coverage unit, although it’s always difficult to know how much of that success is attributable to the punter. It’s feasible that if the coverage unit plays well, this will make Malone’s numbers look even better.

Time will tell whether Malone will be the next one in a long line of punters to play for the Jets and end up underwhelming. Hopefully not, because it would be fitting if Coach Westhoff should manage to mark his last season by finding a diamond in the rough that could continue to contribute long after he’s retired.