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2021 NFL Draft: The Steelers draft a punter and there is much rejoicing

The Pittsburgh Steelers took a punter in the 7th round of the 2021 NFL Draft, but will he stick around?

Georgia Tech v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

In my last film room, I channeled the epic Clint Eastwood spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to break down Pittsburgh’s trade to select Wisconsin defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk in Round 5 of the 2021 NFL Draft. In this one, I’m borrowing from another cinema classic to examine their seventh round selection of Georgia Tech punter Pressley Harvin III: Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Most men over the age of 40 grew up giggling to The Holy Grail. It was a movie so profound and yet so stupid it appealed to nearly anyone with a remote sense of history or humor. It was catnip for nerds, intellectuals, stoners, Dungeons and Dragons aficionados, teenage boys terrified of girls or people who enjoyed talking in silly accents. Anyone who has ever scraped a knee and remarked, “It’s just a flesh wound,” knows exactly what I mean.

When it was announced the Steelers had taken a punter with their final selection in the draft, I thought immediately of a line from the movie I imagined summarized the reaction of many fans:

And there was much rejoicing.

In the movie, this line is uttered by the narrator to describe the reaction of the knights of King Arthur to a variety of events, most notably the death of Sir Robin’s annoying minstrels. For Steelers’ fans, it suggested that, at long last, the team would employ a capable punter who, at best, might become a weapon or, at worst, would be immune from booting a feckless duck at an untimely moment that set up an opposing offense in great field position.

Has the Steelers’ punting unit really been that bad the past few seasons? And is Pressley Harvin III the right man to correct it? Let’s take a look.

To say that Harvin is not your typical punter is an understatement. If you haven’t seen him before, here he is:

That’s probably not what you envisioned. At 5’11-260, Harvin is built more like a high school offensive lineman than an NFL punter. He has quads like tree trunks and his love of the weight room is well-documented, as you can see in this video where Harvin squats 545 pounds with ease.

Harvin’s size isn’t the only thing that makes him unusual. He also has an arm like a quarterback, which he showed off in college, launching this perfect throw for a score in Georgia Tech’s 28-21 overtime victory against Miami in 2019.

The fact that Harvin is black is also notable. Only a few African-Americans have established themselves as punters in the NFL. Reggie Roby of the Miami Dolphins, who retired in 1998, is perhaps the most famous. More recently, the Oakland Raiders employed Marquette King for a few seasons. But the list is short, which makes Harvin’s bid to win the job in Pittsburgh intriguing.

Harvin’s size (is he too big?), race (why so few black punters?) and ability to throw (trick plays!) make for interesting sub-plots. He’s also a high-energy individual who celebrates success by chest-bumping his teammates, jumping around and bringing energy to the field. He’s about as fun to watch as a punter can be.

That said, the issue Steelers’ fans care most about is whether he can kick. At Georgia Tech, that answer was a resounding yes. Harvin won the Ray Guy Award in 2020, given annually to the nation’s best punter. He averaged 48 yards per punt, displayed good hang time and was a proficient directional kicker. Harvin has an exceptionally strong leg and could provide the Steelers their best punter since... Jordan Berry?

Wait a minute. Isn’t Jordan Berry the guy fans can’t wait to run out of town? Isn’t the rejoicing over Harvin’s selection a product of the fact that Berry is a lousy punter?

Those questions are actually more complicated than they seem. Berry, who has been Pittsburgh’s regular punter since 2015, ranks at the top of the franchise list in both gross and net punting average. He is the only punter in team history to average more than 40 net yards per kick in a season, a feat he has accomplished three times. He also set a franchise record for gross average in 2020 at 45.8, besting his own mark of 45.6 set in 2016. What gives, then? Why the dislike for Berry?

Statistics are relative, of course. In Berry’s case, punters as a whole have gotten far better in recent years than they were for most of NFL history. With the exception of Sammy Baugh, the Hall of Fame quarterback/punter who set the record by averaging 51.4 yards per punt in 1940, the 15 best seasons in NFL history have been achieved since 2007. Punters are bigger, stronger and more skilled than ever, which makes it unsurprising that Berry holds many of Pittsburgh’s team records.

Unfortunately, Berry does not fare nearly as well among his contemporaries. Here’s where he’s finished in terms of both gross and net average in the league since arriving in Pittsburgh in 2015:

2015: Gross - 42.6 (33rd); Net - 39.1 (26th)

2016: Gross - 45.6 (19th); Net - 40.8 (13th)

2017: Gross - 43.2 (33rd); Net - 39.8 (26th)

2018: Gross - 43.7 (32nd); Net - 38.8 (30th)

2019: Gross - 45.5 (18th); Net - 40.9 (24th)

2020: Gross - 45.8 (19th); Net - 40.5 (15th)

Berry has never finished higher than 18th in gross average nor 13th with his net. In four of his six seasons in Pittsburgh, his net average has been in the bottom third in the league. Net is the most important punting statistic because it factors in returns, which are a product of things like hang time, direction and coverage. While it’s true the Steelers haven’t fielded stellar coverage units in recent seasons, Berry hasn’t exactly helped the cause.

The result of this is the Steelers have been unable to flip field position as effectively as many teams. This is an under-rated aspect of football, as the yardage gained or lost in punting situations is often hidden from box scores yet can greatly impact the outcome of games.

Take this example from the 2019 contest in Pittsburgh against the Buffalo Bills. The Steelers, without Ben Roethlisberger, had rallied from an 0-3 start to stand at 8-5. They needed a win to solidify one of the more improbable playoff runs in team history, but would have to earn it against a tough Buffalo squad. There was little room for missed opportunities or unforced errors. Yet, early in the contest, this is precisely what they got from Berry.

Punting from deep in his own territory, a strong kick would have given Pittsburgh’s defense a better shot at keeping Buffalo from scoring. But Berry miss-hit the ball, sending it straight into the air, and when it rolled to a stop the Steelers had gained just 22 yards of field position. Buffalo took over at the +40 yard line and scored 9 plays later. Those points were the difference in a 17-10 Bills victory.

Here’s another example. This is from Pittsburgh’s 28-24 comeback win over Indianapolis in 2020 that clinched the AFC North. The Steelers roared back from a 24-7 deficit they accumulated largely because of plays like the following.

Punting from his own 25 yard line, Berry hit the ball well. It traveled 50 yards and was caught at the opposite 25. Distance-wise, it was a nice punt:

The hang time on this kick was just three seconds, though, not nearly enough time to allow Pittsburgh’s coverage team to get into position to make a tackle. Look how much room return man Nyheim Hines (circled below) had from the nearest defender once he fielded the football:

The result was predictable. Hines hit the open grass and brought the ball back near midfield. Coupled with a penalty on Pittsburgh, the Colts took over at the +43 yard line. They scored two plays later to take a 21-7 lead.

It’s easy to cherry-pick a few bad punts from the hundreds Berry authored over the past six years and declare him a liability. The statistics confirm, however, that he has not been good enough to inherit the job again. This year, with Harvin in the fold, he will have to win it outright.

What sort of challenge can we expect from Harvin? The 48 yards-per-kick he averaged in 2020 is impressive. But Harvin is more than just a strong leg. He is a natural athlete who catches the ball easily and transitions to a kick quickly. And his hang time, as we see in the clip below, is excellent. This kick traveled almost 55 yards but, with a hang time of well over four seconds, gave the coverage unit enough time to get down the field and force a fair catch.

The advantage of gaining more than 50 yards on a change of possession is obvious. It can bail an offense out of a bad possession and strengthen a defense’s ability to succeed.

Here’s a perfect example of the latter from Tech’s game against Florida State in 2020. With a 16-13 lead and 1:58 to play, the Yellow Jackets needed a solid punt from Harvin to pin Florida State deep and make them drive the field. While distance would be nice, preventing a return, and the corresponding threat of a big play, was paramount. Harvin managed to do both:

That’s a 47 yard punt with no return. The +47 of field possession put the Seminoles’ backs against a wall. Georgia Tech stopped them on defense to earn an important win.

Again, two film clips do not make a career. Harvin will have to show he’s the real deal to unseat Berry. But, given the fact he’s young, talented and the Steelers spent draft capital to acquire him, it’s likely he’ll be given every opportunity to do so.

Should Harvin succeed, it will mean he’s proven he’s the better punter, which will provide an upgrade at a position where Pittsburgh has been subpar for too long. That, to Steelers fans, will indeed be cause for rejoicing.