On the face of it, 2022 was not a good year for Braden Mann. Fans have lost patience with the punter, who is about to enter the final year of his rookie contract with plenty of calls for competition to be brought in.
Mann had some costly shanks over the course of the season as was among the league leaders in touchbacks and down in 22nd place for net average. Most significantly, he had two punt returned for crucial touchdowns.
Any effort to defend the indefensible and claim that Mann actually had a good season would surely be met with skepticism, if not outright derision. Even Mann himself would surely acknowledge that he was nowhere near as consistent as he’d like to be.
However, if we dig a little deeper into his performance, there are a few indications that aspects of his game must be moving in the right direction, not to mention some other unusual trends.
Mann’s gross average was actually the best of his career, and a yard better than he managed in 2022. Of course, that’s not necessarily a good thing if it meant he outkicked his coverage more, or was just a product of not kicking from near midfield as often, but that’s why we go deeper that just the raw numbers in the first place.
The most surprising numbers come from Pro Football Focus, who actually had Mann’s season graded as easily the best of his career and, shockingly, the fourth best of any punter in the NFL this year.
How is this possible? Many will automatically write off any analysis such as this as evidence that the grades are wrong or the process is imperfect, but it is still a useful exercise to figure out how something like this can differ so wildly from our preconceived notions.
Whatever their criteria is, Mann outperformed most of the rest of the league based on that criteria. In essence, they are measuring pluses and minuses so this suggests that, compared to other punters - and indeed himself in the past - Mann had more positives than he ever had in the past to outweigh those negatives which obviously stuck in our mind from this past season. In addition, they’re looking at data such as field position, hang time and other factors to determine how they decide whether or not a punt was successful. Finally, and crucially, a bad punt might not cause Mann himself to be given a negative grade, if their analysis determines that another player was at fault and he was not.
Perception can do funny things to our viewpoint of a player. Let’s take the touchbacks issue for example:
Mann, who entered the season with just six touchbacks in his career, had eight in 2022 which was the fourth highest in the league. Furthermore, these eight were all bunched into an eight-game span in the middle of the season. Basically he went from averaging less than one touchback per five games to one per game for a half-season.
At some point during the middle of the season, you probably got frustrated with Mann because he kept doing this and that was justified, but over the course of his career it hasn’t been an issue.
Where did this come from? It seems to have been an effort on Mann’s part to try and land the ball closer to the goal line in directional punting situations. Indeed, he had some success with this. One of Mann’s most frustrating issues in his first two years would be that he’d punt from midfield and the fair catch would invariably be at around the 15-yard line.
This year, he landed 12 kicks inside the 10, including four inside the five. That’s almost half of all his kicks inside the 20. However, this evidently led to more touchbacks.
This might in part explain why he did so well on analytical sites. Presumably landing punts close to the goal line is one of the things that scored highly, while a touchback would certainly be a negative, but maybe it’s not weighted as heavily. Perhaps, in some cases, it was deemed to be an unlucky bounce or a mistake by the gunner rather than a poor punt.
Still, where punters are concerned, perfect can be the enemy of good. If you fly too close to the sun, you can get burned, when a safer attempt would have been more than adequate.
Another thing to consider is any punt that was shanked or deflected because he had to rush to get the kick away due to heavy pressure. While these would negatively impact a punter’s numbers, it may be that Mann isn’t to blame on these plays.
Remember, all punters are graded on the same criteria, so it may just be the case that Mann had tougher conditions to deal with than most other punters because he was under pressure more often than they were. He may even have had some good punts that were graded even higher because he dealt well with pressure.
It’s interesting to contrast this with a quarterback who himself may have been under heavy pressure. You could certainly attribute a lot of Zach Wilson’s mistakes to being under pressure. However, when he isn’t under pressure, his numbers are still not very good. Mann, on the other hand, seems to have been able to balance out some of his mistakes with good play, but a solid 50-yard punt isn’t going to resonate like a spectacular touchdown pass.
Mann’s most prominent issue this year was allowing the two touchdown returns, both of which had fans calling for his head. In each case there was a bit of a mitigating factor.
In the Patriots game, the decision to kick to Marcus Jones in the middle of the field was obviously ill-advised, but this was a coaching decision designed presumably to burn off enough clock to dissuade New England from trying to get into field goal range at the end of regulation. There also easily could have been a couple of penalties called on the return team. You can’t really say whether Mann outkicked his coverage on that one, because he may have put the ball exactly where he was told to.
In the Lions game, the Jets had failed to get off their own goal line so Mann had to take a snap from 10 yards back instead of the usual 16. This made a huge difference as he had to rush to get the kick away with pressure on him almost instantly. Of course it was a short line drive with a good chance of a successful return, but the coaches may not have blamed him for this, and analytical sites probably didn’t either.
Even if you did blame Mann for those two long returns, you would then have to praise him for limiting return yardage on most of his other punts over the course of the season. Mann was fifth-worst in the NFL for punt return average allowed, but if you take out those two touchdown returns, he’d have been in the top 10.
Since we’ve talked about perception, it’s worth noting that Mann has had some negatives over the course of his career that would not be reflected in his punting grade. Missed tackles, botched holds and the issues he had earlier this year he had where he slipped twice when kicking off would all come into this category and they all fuel this negative perception of Mann’s overall contributions. (In fact, some even still blame him for a touchdown-saving tackle he actually made in 2020 and the effect it had on the 2021 Jets’ draft position).
In closing, GGN readers who’ve followed our analysis on Mann over the course of his career will be familiar with a metric we like to use called ANPP, which seeks to measure how efficiently a punter performs when taking into account field position. (A more detailed explanation of what this statistic entails is here).
This metric provides us with a sliding scale from 60 to 70 within which virtually all punters will land over a large sample size. Anything close to 60 means your job is in danger and anything close to 70 means you’re among the league’s best.
Mann raised his ANPP score from 61 to 67 in 2021, but you’d expect it to drop right down in 2022 based on our perception of his bad season. However, even taking into account all those shanks and touchbacks, and the two touchdown returns, he posted a 67 again. That even includes his six-yard net deflected punt, which we should perhaps omit because blocked punts aren’t supposed to count. That would be enough to raise it to a 68.
There is no question that Mann made too many mistakes in 2022, and often at what seemed like the worst possible moment. However, he generally kicked the ball further down the field and, aside from two disasters on plays which had mitigating factors, the Jets generally covered these kicks well. He also did a better job of pinning teams closer to their goal line.
Knowing this does little to overshadow those frustrating negatives over the course of the season though. The fanbase clearly doesn’t have faith in him to deliver when it counts. If the coaching staff is similarly losing faith in him then the fans look set to get their wish with other options being brought in to compete fast becoming a near-certainty.