The Minnesota Vikings selected punter Jeff Locke in the fifth-round of the 2013 draft. It was a rather surprising move at the time because Chris Kluwe had been a decent player for the Vikings for a number of years and it’s not too often you see a punter get drafted that high. Oftentimes, they are signed by a team as an undrafted free agent, so there was a lot of pressure placed on Locke to perform right from the start.
Locke’s career got off to a pretty good start as he had, arguably, his best season as a rookie. He posted his career-high in punts (75), which he later tied, during the 2013 season, recorded the longest punt of his career (65 yards), recorded his career-high for net yards per punt (39.2 yards), recorded a career-high, which he tied again in 2015, in punts inside the 20-yard line (23), and the three touchbacks he recorded is the lowest of his career.
He set a standard that Vikings coaches, the front office and fans expected to see him meet and improve on for years to come, but that has not been the case. His second year saw a drop in his stats and while his third season was better than his second season, it still wasn’t quite as good as his rookie year. To be fair, he has been forced to play outdoors at TCF Bank Stadium for home games in 2014 and 2015, where there are often swirling winds that made punting difficult.
The 2016 season marks the final season of his rookie deal and he is set to be a free agent come the offseason. It is an important season for him, not only for him to try to land a nice new deal and stay with the Vikings, but also to prove to all teams in the league that he deserves to play in the NFL. There are a lot of punters looking for work once they graduate from college and if Locke doesn’t improve this season it is possible he could lose his job to one of them.
Some observers expected that the Vikings would bring in another punter this offseason as a way to provide competition and push Locke, but that has not happened and it doesn’t sound like it will. The Vikings coaching staff continues to express confidence in their punter and believe that moving indoors at U.S. Bank Stadium will really help him out.
If Locke is hoping for a contract extension following this season, then he better hope the move back indoors does, in fact, help him out. Last season he had the third-lowest net punt average in the NFL - which combines the distance of his punt with the distance of the return. He was also in the bottom half of the league for kicks inside the 20-yard line (23), and his five touchbacks were tied for the 12th-most in the NFL.
Those are all things weighing against him and could hurt his hopes for a future contract. But let’s say the Vikings want to re-sign him because they see potential and believe they can still work with him. What is the dollar amount that he could expect to see?
Jon Ryan of the Seattle Seahawks had very similar numbers to Locke last season with the only real difference between the two being their age - Locke is 26 and Ryan is 34. This offseason Ryan signed a four-year deal worth $10 million, making him a free agent in 2020.
Another player with similar stats to Locke’s last season is Jacob Schum, who signed a two-year, $960,000 deal in 2015. So just by looking at these two players, who had very similar stats a year ago, you can see the disparity of contracts in the NFL when it comes to punters.
The highest-paid punter in the NFL is New Orleans’ Thomas Morstead, who signed a six-year, $21.885 million deal back in 2012. On the other end of the spectrum, Carolina’s Swayze Waters and San Diego’s Kasey Redfern are currently making the least amount of money among punters in the NFL with one-year, $450,000 contracts.
It’s hard to believe that Locke will be able to fetch top dollar this offseason, even if he is able to turn things around, but he also isn’t going to become one of the lowest paid punters in the NFL. His new contract will probably be somewhere in the middle, a couple million more than the four-year, $2,344,192 contract he currently has if he is able to work himself in the top half of punters when it comes to production and average.