It wasn’t too long ago that Chris Jones, affectionately nicknamed the Puntisher, for good reason, was one of the most underrated punters in the NFL. But injuries hampered Jones’ ability to give the Cowboys defense good field position over the last two years. It came to a head during the 2020 season, when Jones was placed on injured reserve and Hunter Niswander stepped in to finish the season.
Niswander was a relative unknown at the time, and still is; most fans preferred the Cowboys sign Marquette King instead, but quickly changed their tune after seeing Niswander in action. Niswander graduated from Northwestern in 2018 and, like most punters, went undrafted. Unlike most punters, Niswander didn’t get picked up by any team. In fact, his first ever punt in professional football came by way of the XFL’s DC Defenders.
But Dallas gave him a chance, and he didn’t waste it. Through eight games with 26 punts, Niswander averaged 47.2 yards per punt and landed ten of them inside the 20-yard line. While it’s an admittedly small sample size - for comparison, Jones averaged 62 punts a year in his seven seasons as the full-time punter - those are still incredible numbers for the young punter. So good that Dallas opted to release Jones earlier in the offseason.
However, not good enough to prevent them from bringing in competition for Niswander in the form of nine-year veteran Bryan Anger. Most NFL fans remember Anger for something that was in no way his fault: the fact that the Jaguars used a third-round pick to take him five spots ahead of Russell Wilson. Anger became the highest-drafted punter in NFL history, and as such came in with sky-high expectations. He never met fan expectations given the low amount of snaps a punter plays, although the Jacksonville offense did provide him plenty of opportunities to see the field.
In judging Anger as a punter as opposed to his draft value, he’s been an incredibly good punter throughout his career. If you judge by yards per punt, Anger’s worst season came in 2017 when he averaged 44 yards per punt. His second-worst season, in 2018, had him averaging 45 yards per punt. By contrast, the Puntisher averaged 45 yards per punt or less in six of his ten seasons in Dallas.
In looking at Anger’s career, his two best seasons came within his first three years in the league, during his days in Jacksonville. As a rookie, Anger’s punts traveled an average of 47.8 yards, and two years later that figure sat at a league-leading 47.5 yards per punt. While he hasn’t topped those numbers, or even finished a season averaging 47 yards per punt, Anger has enjoyed a career resurgence as of late. He averaged 46.5 yards per punt and 46.4 yards per punt in 2019 and 2020 respectively, marking a welcome return to form before landing in Dallas.
Now, the position battle between Niswander and Anger isn’t going to get nearly as much attention as, say, the position battle at linebacker will. But there’s an argument to be made that it should be. After all, the 2019 season showed just how impactful special teams can be. The Cowboys fielded a team that ranked second in offensive DVOA, 16th in defensive DVOA, and 30th in special teams DVOA. According to the algorithm that Football Outsiders uses, an offense that potent and a middle-of-the-road defense should have yielded between 11 and 12 wins that year. Instead, they went 8-8 and hit the reset button on the coaching staff.
Special teams was a large factor in that, as the Cowboys’ on-fire offense was routinely asked to drive 75 or 80 yards to score a touchdown while the defense was frequently given very little room for error before opposing offenses reached scoring position. It’s why Mike McCarthy’s hiring of John Fassel received so much praise last year. And for the record, it was well-deserved, as Dallas jumped all the way up to seventh in special teams DVOA in 2020.
When it comes to field position, the punter plays a crucial part. Obviously the punt coverage team ultimately determines much of the starting field position, but if the punter is unable to kick it far enough down the field or give enough hang time for his coverage players to streak downfield, as was the case for Jones the last few years, it’s all a wash.
So while much of the focus for these Cowboys is either on the offense returning to form with Dak Prescott back under center, or on Dan Quinn leading a quick turnaround for this defense, as much attention ought to be paid to who the Cowboys’ punter will be. Niswander is the young, promising guy who’s already familiar with the coaching staff, while Anger is a seasoned veteran and a known commodity. Which player the team ultimately goes with this season could end up having a big impact on how the team does in the win-loss column in 2021.