Indianapolis Colts Training Camp Battles: Punter
The McAfee Era
Pat McAfee is as good at stealing the show as he is at punting footballs. Unfortunately, for the Indianapolis Colts, they were center-stage for his final performance in the National Football League.
On February 2, only a week after Chris Ballard was hired to replace Ryan Grigson as general manager, the two-time Pro-Bowler announced his retirement from the NFL to join Barstool Sports.
The writing was on the wall. It’s easy to say in hindsight. However, it became evident over time that McAfee’s interests lied outside of just football. He was an eager comedian who happened to be one of the league’s best punters.
McAfee’s retirement creates the most unlikely of openings on the Colts roster. Replacing him will be far more difficult than most assume. Last season, McAfee averaged 49.3 yards per punt, with a net average of 42.7, first and third in the league respectively. He also served as the team’s kickoff specialist, averaging 64 yards per kick. Off of the field, McAfee’s easy-going, fun attitude made him a fan favorite. And, his charitable endeavors highlighted his value to the state of Indiana.
With considerable punting shoes to fill, Ballard must be diligent in his search for McAfee’s replacement. So far, two candidates were brought in for the first-year GM to evaluate.
Jeff Locke was signed by the Colts on March 10 after having spent his first four years in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings. Last season, Locke averaged 42.6 yards per punt, with a net average of 39. 2016 was his most efficient season, with 34 of his 74 punts ending inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. The former UCLA Bruin has sported No. 18 since his college days, but there will be no getting it back in Indianapolis.
“That’s probably not going to fly [with the Colts],” Locke said on Tuesday in his first press conference since arriving this offseason. McAfee’s No. 1 also seems to also be off limits for now. Instead, Locke will wear No. 9.
The two-year, $3.45 million deal that Locke signed suggests that he is the favorite to start come the regular season. However, Ballard has stated that he wants his players to compete for starting roles, and punter will be no exception.
Standing in Locke’s way is Rigoberto Sanchez. An undrafted free agent from the University of Hawaii, he is one of 18 college prospects signed by the Colts following the 2017 draft. Sanchez started two seasons for the Warriors where he handled kicking and punting duties. He averaged 44.6 yards per punt last season, good enough for tenth in the nation. As a kicker, Sanchez made 87.5% of his field goals (21-for-24), and 97.3% of his extra points (72-of-74). It is not out of the question for Sanchez to find himself atop the punter’s depth chart on Week 1. But, there will be no surpassing Adam Vinatieri as the Colts’ field goal and extra point kicker just yet.
Sanchez’ versatility gives him a shot to make the final 53-man roster in September. While Locke has the inside track for punting duties due to his contract and previous NFL experience, Sanchez has a chance to replace McAfee as the team’s kickoff specialist, as Locke has no experience in that facet of the game.
Following up McAfee’s act in Indianapolis will be no laughing matter. Like Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison before him, McAfee leaves the game as the top player at his position in franchise history. While they will not have the same type of expectations as Andrew Luck or T.Y. Hilton, Locke and/or Sanchez will be counted on to be successful in their individual roles, nonetheless.
Jeff Tibbins covers the Indianapolis Colts for Pro Football Spot. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jeff_tibbins.