In most businesses, you may not be able to let a 40-something employee go to hire a 23-year-old you believe can do just as good just to take on a lower salary. But in sports you can certainly let a 31-year-old go for the same reason, and the stats show that is all that happened when Chris Kluwe was replaced by Jeff Locke from his old alma mater, UCLA.
When same-sex marriage activist Brendon Ayanbadejo from the Baltimore Ravens was cut, Jason Collins was a free agent after announcing he was gay, and Kluwe was cut, liberal press members questioned the motives of some owners.
While determining Ayanbadejo’s value is probably beyond stats since special teams play and linebacking is better judged by observation, no GM in looking at the stats and age of Collins and Kluwe would have chosen to keep paying them over $1 million a year if their goal was winning games efficiently.
In his prime, Chris Kluwe was the highest paid specialist in the NFL with a $5 million salary compared to an average $868,000 earned by his fellow punters. But like most athletes in their 30s, his value was declining and the golden rule of sports franchises is that you play players for what you expect them to do, not for what they did in the past. Of the 10 highest paid punters in the league, Kluwe would have been one of only two who did not rank in the top half in any of the three main categories – average distance of punts, net average and percent of punts inside the 20 yard line.
His average punt travelled 45.0 yards, which was 22nd in the league but still a little better than Locke’s 43.3 at UCLA. His net average of 39.7 was just below average, while Locke had the top net in the Pac-12 of 41.3. Kluwe was also putting only 25 percent of his punts inside the 20 yard line, next to last in the league, while Locke put 44 percent of his inside the 20, which would have been the fifth best total in the NFL.
Of course we do not know if Locke will hit the same marks in the pros, and if the better protection and kick coverage offsets the better rush and return game of the other team, but overall it looks like he may be a slightly better punter right now based on stats alone. At the age of 23 he would be expected to get better every year for four more years, while players like Kluwe in their 30s generally fall off each year.
The fact that the Vikings can pay Locke almost exactly $1 million less this year to free up money to sign the right player at another position made this move a statistical no-brainer. However, unlike Collins in the NBA, Kluwe’s stats do indicate he could be an NFL punter somewhere in the league moving forward, just not one who can command a top-10 salary anymore.