First-year Australian punter Jordan Berry was not even on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 90-man offseason roster until mid-April, a couple of weeks ahead of the 2015 NFL Draft. At the time, in fact, the Steelers already had two punters on the roster.
But he now stands on his own after the team traded incumbent Brad Wing to the New York Giants yesterday in exchange for a conditional seventh-round draft pick.
While it may have been painted as a case of a win-win situation in which they took what they could get for a commodity with NFL experience, anybody following the Steelers’ preseason knows that Berry won the job.
But that seemed like a longshot at the start of training camp, and you can imagine just how far away that goal might have seemed back in early May.
The Steelers had initially signed punter Richie Leone to a Reserve/Future contract in January, the notion being that he would be the one to challenge Wing this year if another veteran challenger were not brought in.
But the team also added Berry prior to the rookie minicamp, and allowed the two first-year players, himself and Leone, to compete against each other, with the victor heading into training camp to face Wing in a positional battle for the punting job.
Training camp reports early on suggested that Wing had clearly the bigger leg, but Berry was able to show over the course of the preseason that his ability to put distance on the ball is not an issue either.
Where he was able to separate himself was his ability to keep the ball in the air by getting quality hang time, allowing his coverage to track down the returner, which is something that Wing had been inconsistent in doing.
The fact that it is an aspect of the job that Berry had to learn and adapt to makes it all the more intriguing. He told Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review back in June that he spent the offseason working on hang time and directional kicking, as those are aspects of the craft that are less emphasized in the Australian Football League.
Interestingly, it may perhaps be that background that helped him develop a delivery that is more difficult for returners to field, as his ball tends to go end over end more. In the Steelers’ preseason finale, the Panthers muffed a pair of his five punts.
In fact, Carolina managed an abysmal -7 return yards on Berry’s five punts, a number obviously aided by the two muffed punts, but is impressive all the same. According to Pro Football Focus, the first-year punter averaged 49.4 yards on 19 punts, with an impressive net of 43.5 yards.
The site ranked Berry as the highest-graded punter of the preseason, displaying impressive hang time (with a high of 5.31 seconds) and a long of 78 yards, though that one went for a touchback. In all, he had 11 punts returned for 93 yards.
Of course, this is just the first step for Berry, winning the job. He must be a consistent performer for the Steelers from here on out, or he can find himself on the punter carousel that the team has experienced throughout this decade.