FOXBORO -- Ed Reed. Jason Taylor. Larry Fitzgerald. Johnny Hekker.
One of these is not like the others.
Every week Patriots coach Bill Belichick heaps a certain level of praise on the best players his team is about to face, but there are certain individuals who urge Belichick to take his admiration to another level. Oftentimes those are surefire Hall of Famers or All-Pros, like the first three names mentioned above. But during his Wednesday morning press conference with reporters, Belichick went above and beyond on a punter.
For Belichick, Rams punter Hekker represents a unique kind of football talent, an endangered species, a rare jewel. On a team full of impressive athletes, Belichick considers Hekker to be one of their best. That Hekker happens to use his foot to push the football down the field and change field position . . . well that made Belichick, a former special teams coach, ratchet up the flattery to an 11.
"Hekker is a tremendous weapon," Belichick said, unprovoked. "I mean, this guy is as good a player as I've ever seen at that position. He's a tremendous weapon in his ability to punt the ball, punt it inside the 20, directonal kick it, involved in fakes, can throw, can run, very athletic . . . He's dangerous. Absolutely. He's like a quarterback. He can throw. He can run. You gotta defend him like you defend one of those guys."
Hekker and the Patriots have an interesting shared history. Back in 2008, he walked onto the Oregon State football team along with another freshman punter named Ryan Allen. Hekker won the job, and a scholarship, and Allen didn't have a chance to get on the field for two seasons. He eventually transferred to Louisiana Tech, won the Ray Guy Award twice as the nation's top collegiate punter, and was signed by the Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2013.
While Belichick certainly appreciates Allen and the way he's performed over the last four seasons, he went on and on about Allen's former college teammate, comparing Hekker to Guy, Saints punter Thomas Morestead and former Giants punters Dave Jennings and Sean Landetta.
"They're all great players," Belichick said. "I'm not taking anything away from them . . . But I mean this guy is -- this guy is a weapon. I mean he's not a good player. He's a weapon . . . You're talking about an athlete with Hekker now. He's a little more athletic than Landeta. Just to pick a name. I'd say Ray Guy . . . Ray kicked for a great average, but these guys [the Rams] lead the league in punt coverage. Lead the league in gross punting. Lead the league in net punting. Lead the league in inside the 20, and lead the league in punt coverage. I mean, if you're in front of one of those catergories that's pretty good. Last year they led the league in all three. They're right up there this year. Plus [Hekker's] a threat on fakes and stuff like that."
Belichick was asked, though, if he would like to see Hekker get a large workload on Sunday.
"Yeah. Right. Just gotta make sure we get the ball," he said. "Another part of the problem is just catching the ball. He kicks it so far and makes the returner move for it. They run over there, they mishandle it, or it hits the ground and rolls for another 20 yards. It's a tough ball to catch because you're not just shagging flies out there. He's making you run, and he's kicking it over your head.
"The ball-handling is tough for the returners too. Very tough. The Jets had a lot of trouble with it. Carolina . . . He's had several punt this year where they can't get to the ball and it rolls 20 yards. Fifty becomes 70. Forty-five becomes 65. It changes field position [in] one play. You think you're going to get the ball with good field position and you're at the 15-yard line.
"But, yeah, to your point, I hope he gets a good workout."