It’s one of my favorite (if particularly overly trivial) phenomenons in recent Steelers’ history: over the past decade, they simply can’t seem to settle on a punter.
From Daniel Sepulveda to Jordan Berry and everywhere in between (Mitch Berger, Paul Ernster, Jeremy Kapinos, Drew Butler, Zoltan Mesko, Matt McBriar and Brad Wing, if you’re scoring at home), Mike Tomlin has blown through punters like no one else in the league since he took over as Steelers coach in 2007.
No man has been the Steelers punter for more than 28 consecutive games in the Tomlin era. Berry would need to last until Week 13 of this season (Dec. 11 at Buffalo) to snap that streak.
But will he?
Not if Will Monday has anything to say about it.
Monday was one of the top punters available for the draft this spring. A four-year punter at Duke, he was all-ACC as a freshman after leading the conference in gross average. He was first- second- or third-team ACC each season he competed in college.
Monday was rated among the top five punters coming out this year by NFL.com. Most of the other draft services – at least the ones that bother to rate specialists – agreed.
But Monday was not one of the three punters who were selected (Drew Kaser, Lac Edwards and Riley Dixon were), meaning he had a decision to quickly make as the NFL’s Annual Selection Meeting was wrapping up late on the final Saturday of April.
“The Steelers started contacting me toward the end of the draft, and I felt like it was the best opportunity from what I’d been hearing so far,” Monday told me on Friday before the first training-camp team practice.
“Who doesn’t want to come to a franchise like this? It’s an unbelievable franchise with a good opportunity to compete and have an open competition, so I thought it was the best opportunity for me, and that’s the one I went with.”
Notice Monday said “open competition” – I doubled back with him, and he confirmed that’s what the team told him. [I know, I know, of course; what else would they say? However, there have been many instances – often at kicker or long snapper with the Steelers because of circumstance, but sometimes at punter, too – in which a guy was brought in just as a proverbial “spare leg” to use in practices and preseason games. Everyone knows he has no chance to make the team (barring injury) and unseat a capable veteran.]
That’s not the case here – and not just because the strong-legged Monday is a legitimate NFL prospect. Berry was OK during his first NFL season in 2015, but coaches would like him to be more consistent. After being in a similar position as Monday last summer (he beat out incumbent Wing during camp), Berry’s performance as the Steelers’ only punter resulted in pedestrian league rankings in gross punting average (third-to-last at 42.6) and net average (24th at 39.1).
If Berry doesn’t have a strong camp and Monday does, could it be that the Steelers turn to their 10th punter in Tomlin’s 10 seasons? Could it really be the 12th time the job has switched hands (counting the three times Sepulveda lost it because of injury)?
Could it be that for the fourth time in five years the Steelers incumbent punter was beaten out in camp? And the fifth camp in a row breaks with a change at the position?
“The way it’s been said to me is it’s an open competition,” Monday said. “They don’t bring anybody here unless they have a legitimate chance to make the roster, so that’s kind of how I’m treating it: the best man is gonna get the job. So it’s my job to go out here and do my best and continue improving every day and take advantage of every opportunity that I have.”
Monday and Berry were booming high punts to each other – under the watchful eye of special teams coordinator Danny Smith and the proverbial “eye in the sky” camera, of course, too – on the second field during Friday’s inaugural training camp practice.
Who was kicking farther? Better? Higher with more hang time?
Cumon, I’m a reporter – but I’m not skilled or well-versed enough in punting to evaluate it (not to mention, with all due respect to the position, I had other priorities to track in the precious time we have to watch practices at St. Vincent). So, all I can say in my professional opinion is that both men indeed kicked the ball very, very high and very, very far.
Monday confirmed that whoever is the punter will also be the holder and that neither man has been asked to give it a crack on kickoffs. Monday also noted that he hasn’t too often had to have to fight for his position – he “started” for four years at Duke after accepting a scholarship from the school late in his junior year of high school.
“It’s different being in a competition – it’s been a long time, five years ago when I was a redshirt,” Monday said. “So for me to kind of get back into the swing of things, I used minicamp and used OTAs to get back into that. Now, it’s all or nothing. I’ve got have that mindset of winning the job.”