At a time of year when you pray for peace and quiet while counting down to the start of training camp, the Ravens made positive news last week by signing veteran punter Sam Koch to a long-term extension.
Despite being the second-longest tenured player on the team behind Terrell Suggs, the 32-year-old’s future had been under scrutiny the last couple offseasons due to a high salary cap figure for a punter, but general manager Ozzie Newsome showed how much the organization valued Koch by inking him to a five-year, $16.25 million extension that runs through the 2020 season. The 2006 sixth-round pick was coming off arguably the best season of his career in which he led the NFL in net punting with a 43.3 yard average.
Koch will receive good pay for however long he remains in Baltimore — the structure of the contract would make it fairly easy to cut him as early as the conclusion of the 2016 season if desired — but the deal still ranks outside the top five for punter contracts in total cash and guaranteed money. Remembering that the salary cap has increased by more than $23 million since 2011 makes Koch’s deal much easier to swallow considering his consistency.
While more attention has understandably fallen on the future of 2013 Pro Bowl kicker Justin Tucker — who is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2015 season — Koch has long been a respected member of the locker room that extends beyond his reputation for executing directional kicks as well as any punter in the league. Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg passionately summarized Koch’s value to the Ravens after the veteran failed to make the Pro Bowl last December despite winning the fan vote:
I think the fans got it right. The fans prove to be more informed than the experts in this particular regard, in my opinion. Sam has his team as the No. 1 net punt and No. 1 gross punt team in the league if you’re looking just at numbers – which I’m assuming people did – and that’s hard to do. It’s hard to do both. And other numbers that jump out at you – he’s one of the lowest numbers in percentage of returned balls, one of the lowest numbers in percentage of yards returned, one of the highest percentage of inside-the-20 punts in the league.
Besides that, he’s probably – and I don’t have numbers to back it up – but I suspect that the numbers would back me up to say he’s probably the best holder in the history of football. He has held for three Pro Bowl kickers since he has been here. This last year, he held for three different snappers, actually four counting Haloti [Ngata]. What more does a guy have to do? I guess that’s the way I look at it. And this is meant as no disrespect for the two outstanding players that made it, but the reason we do what we do is because Sam can do it. And the season he has had has been phenomenal. He went through an offseason where he got some undeserved criticism that was thrown out there and some people swallowed it and then spit it back up. His family endured that, and all Sam did is work and take care of his family.
He’s a great husband and a father, an outstanding member of his community. This is a model for pro athletes. If anybody wants to look at a pro athlete, I say, ‘Look at Sam. Be like Sam.’ His teammates have an enormous amount of respect for him. The thing I think has happened here is, because he’s such an unassuming team man – that he doesn’t seek attention for himself – that I think he has been overlooked for a number of years. Certainly not by us, not by his teammates – he is not being overlooked. We are passionate in our support of Sam Koch, because he’s such an outstanding man and an outstanding player.
Is Rosburg partial to the only punter he’s known in Baltimore? Of course, but his words tell all you need to know as to why the Ravens felt it was important to lock up their veteran punter.
Of course, the bigger challenge will be signing Tucker, but the franchise tag is almost certain to be in play if the sides don’t strike a deal by next February.
The Ravens were able to augment their depth at the cornerback position with the additions of veteran Kyle Arrington and fourth-round rookie Tray Walker this offseason, but safety remains a concern as they enter training camp later this month.
Newsome made a modest commitment to veteran newcomer Kendrick Lewis with a three-year, $5.4 million contract, but only time will tell whether he represents an upgrade from Darian Stewart, who wasn’t exactly stellar in his lone season in Baltimore last year. According to Pro Football Focus, Lewis graded out as the 27th-best safety among those playing at least 50 percent of team snaps while Stewart was 23rd, but the Ravens believe Lewis has better ability to play deep coverage — an area in which the pass defense struggled dramatically a year ago.
Strong safety Will Hill could be the wild card for the Ravens secondary if he can build on his 2014 campaign in which he graded out as the 14th-best safety in the league, per PFF. Head coach John Harbaugh challenged the 25-year-old Hill to keep himself out of trouble this offseason after he was suspended three times in his first three years in the NFL, resulting in him being jettisoned by the New York Giants last year.
Baltimore will knock on wood hoping no news is good news with Hill as his continued emergence would mean less reliance on the disappointing Matt Elam or the rehabbing Terrence Brooks to begin the 2015 season. Scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason, Hill would not only solidify his standing in the starting defense with a strong season, but he’d put himself in line for a nice payday despite the tumultuous beginning to his professional career.
The winner of this year’s Ravens-related topic that isn’t remotely a story might have been the recent comments made by Haloti Ngata about his new defense in Detroit.
Apparently, the five-time Pro Bowl selection saying he had “never been a part of a defense like this” meant he was trashing his former team as if he’s supposed to walk on eggshells in describing his new surroundings. Many of those stirring up controversy failed to mention that Ngata will be playing in a base 4-3 front for the first time in his NFL career and — wait for it — will have different teammates than the ones with whom he played in Baltimore, very much making it a defense he’s “never been a part of” before.
If you need further evidence to dismiss the notion that Ngata was out of line in expressing admiration for a non-Baltimore defense, Detroit finished ahead of the Ravens in total defense and points allowed in 2014.
While I wouldn’t describe the separation between Ngata and the Ravens as harmonious after contract talks broke down this winter, each side ultimately made a business decision the other respected. The veteran spent nearly a decade in Baltimore, rarely ever used the media to draw attention to himself, and has expressed nothing but respect for his former organization since the March trade, making last week’s created controversy absurd.
Yes, it’s a slow news time in the NFL, but there was nothing to see there at all.