The Steelers 4th round draft pick from a year ago, Daniel Sepulveda, had a fine rookie year. Not great, that's for sure, but certainly not terrible, and probably better than what we would have gotten out of Chris Gardocki. Before moving on to the yardage numbers, let me first say that Sepulveda did a phenomenal job downing the ball inside the 20 when asked to. His 28 punts inside the 20 were good for 8th best in the league and he only had 2 punts tumble into the endzone for touchbacks. That's remarkable stuff. And yes, that numbers was tops in the league in terms of fewest touchbacks.
Last year, Sepulveda avereage 42.4 yards per punt, good for 18th best in the league. His net average was 37.9 yards, or 11th best in the NFL. For comparison's sake, Chris Gardocki averaged 41.3 yards per punt, 30th best, with a net average of 36.7, 19th best.
Not much of an upgrade, huh? Not really, but finishing one's rookie year in the top 11 in net yards is nothing to sneeze at. My question was, 'can we expect Sepulveda to improve'? I have no idea really what goes in to the developmental aspects of punting. Sure, they must continue to work out, and obviously when you're paid to punt a ball, and it's your only job, you spend hours mastering your craft. But, it's not like playing QB or OL, where you have to get used to the speed of the game, the intracicies of the playbook and defensive schemes, etc.
So, the best solution I could think of was to look at the career trajectories of some of the league's better punters to see if they in fact improved substantially from their early years in the league. The following players, Shane Lechler, Todd Sauerbrun, Mat McBriar and Brian Moorman, have been the league leaders in punting since 2001, with Lechler taking home the title four times and Sauerbrun twice.
Shane Lechler, Oakland Raiders
There may be no better punter in the league than Lechler. Drafted in the 5th round in 2000, Lechler has led the league in punting 4 times in his career, and is both the active and overall career leader in punting yards per game at 46.5 yards per punt.
Rookie year: 45.9 yards, the second lowest of his career, but still not a shabby number.
Career Average: 46.5 ypp
+/- Differential: - 0.6 yards.
Matt McBriar, Dallas Cowboys
Rookie Year: 42.4 ypp
Career Average: 44.7 ypp
+/- Differential: - 2.3 yards
Todd Sauerbrun - Drafted in 2nd Round in 1995! Talk about expectations.
Rookie Year: 37.8 ypp
Career Average: 44.1 ypp
+/- Differential: - 6.3 yards
Rookie Average: 40.8 ypp
Career Average: 43.1 yards per punt
+/- Differential: - 2.3 yards
So, I suppose it's reasonably safe to assume that Sepulveda's best days are still in front of him and that we can expect that 42.4 yards per punt average to climb closer to the 44-45 yards per punt range. Sounds trivial and unimportant, but for most all of last year, we were clamoring about field position and shoddy special teams play. Every little bit counts and I'm expecting the punting game to be just another department where we should improve in 2008.