It might not seem like it, but a few years ago punter Chris Jones was revered as a prize commodity for this football team. So much so that the Dallas Cowboys signed him to a four-year, $8.7 million contract extension in 2017. And this re-upping in Jones wasn’t because of his puntishing tackling skills. Nor was because of the speedy skedaddling he did during the few times his number was called to take off running on a fake punt. Believe it or not, the veteran punter was one of the best in the businesses at pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line.
Since taking over as the team’s starting punter in 2013, Jones finished inside the top 12 in percentage of punts downed inside the 20 in five straight seasons including a league best 51.5% in 2017.
Jones didn’t have an overwhelmingly powerful leg as he averaged around 45 yards a punt ranking him near the middle of the pack during this span. However, his ability to finesse the right amount of distance combined with some very good directional control provided his team with a nice advantage.
But things changed for him in 2018. Not only did opportunities to start opponents in poor field position disappear, but the overall distance on his punts started to decline. Over the past two and a half seasons, Jones has shown to have one of the weaker legs in the league. It was learned later that during the 2019 season Jones played with a back and sports hernia injury.
You may have noticed that there are a couple rankings of 33 in there which means that in some instances he finished behind at least one backup punter in that category. It’s unclear if Jones’ health issues lingered this past season, but his punting ability continued to suffer. He only played in eight games this year, landing on injured reserve in November.
Enter Hunter Niswander.
The undrafted punter didn’t get a job when he came out in 2018, although the Pittsburgh Steelers did give him a tryout. Last year, he got his first chance to make a roster but it came courtesy of the XFL’s DC Defenders. Niswander played in five games before the league canceled the season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cowboys signed him to their practice squad in late October, and then brought him on as the team’s starting punter after placing Jones on injured reserve a couple weeks later.
From the above graphic, you can see that Niswander’s yards per punt as well as his inside the 20 percentage, albeit in just eight games, were considerably better than Jones’ last few seasons. In fact, Niswander’s 47.2 career average just so happens to rank as the highest yards per punt average in the team’s 61-year history. Again, we’re talking about a very small sample size, but that’s a very nice start for a guy who has a great chance to take over the starting job next season.
A healthy Jones should bring a healthy competition at what we hope will be a training camp this upcoming season, but you can bank on many fans pulling for the new leg to walk away with the gig. And why is that? Because it just makes more cents. Okay, enough with the subliminal money references, you get the point.
Jones has one year left on his deal and his $2 million base salary does not look as desirable as his Niswander’s $780,000 cost. Not only that, but Niswander will be an exclusive rights free agent next year, meaning the team can get another year of service from him for cheap. Considering the cap impact teams are expected to face due to the lost revenue of the 2020 season, any little bit of savings will come in handy.
But it’s not just the cash that drives this decision as Niswander has looked considerably better than Jones has. The Cowboys are still trying to improve their special teams unit, and having a punter who can drive his kicks a little farther and set the opposing offense back a little deeper is a Nisway to make things better.