Rookie punter Michael Dickson gives Seahawks something 'unique'

Michael Dickson won the Ray Guy Award as the nation's top punter, was the MVP of Texas' bowl victory and was a unanimous first-team All-American during his final season with the Longhorns. AP Photo/John Amis

RENTON, Wash. -- During a rookie minicamp practice earlier this month for the Seattle Seahawks, on an adjacent field to the rest of the players, punter Michael Dickson was producing what might be the first of many ooh-and-aah moments.

To observers, specialists are typically out of sight and out of mind during an NFL practice, but not when they're doing what Dickson was doing on this day -- casually drop-kicking the ball more than 50 yards in the air toward goalposts set up on the other half of the field.

When the Seahawks said Dickson can do things with a football they haven't seen done, this was one example.

"He was just too unique of a player," general manager John Schneider said after the Seahawks raised eyebrows last month by drafting the Australian-born Dickson in the fifth round, making him the first specialist off the board. (One kicker and two other punters were selected later in that same round.) It was the first time the Seahawks had drafted a specialist since Schneider and coach Pete Carroll arrived in 2010, and it was the highest pick the organization has spent on one since Seattle drafted kicker John Kasay in the fourth round in 1991.

Not only that, but the Seahawks traded up seven spots for Dickson, giving up a seventh-rounder to do so. While that seemed to many like a steep price to pay for a punter -- especially when Seattle already has a good one in Jon Ryan -- there were some who were surprised Dickson lasted as long as he did. Draft analyst Lance Zierlein, for instance, projected him to go in the third or fourth round.

Dickson built an impressive résumé at the University of Texas, where he won the 2017 Ray Guy Award as the nation's top punter, was a unanimous first-team All-American that same season and was twice named Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year.

And to hear those who have coached and scouted Dickson describe him, that's how special of a talent he is.

"I think he's the best we've seen since really we've been here, just in terms of just straight punting ability," Seahawks special-teams coordinator Brian Schneider told 710 ESPN Seattle. "We think he's the best, and obviously that's why we drafted him. He's the best we've seen in a while."

Over his three seasons with the Longhorns, Dickson dropped 95 punts inside the 20-yard line (nine more than anyone else in the nation) and 42 inside the 10 (four more than anyone else nationally), according to ESPN charting. It's a skill that he credits to his background in Aussie rules football, which he played right up until enrolling at Texas in 2015.

In his final college game, the Texas Bowl against Missouri, Dickson pinned 10 of his 11 punts inside the Tigers' 15-yard line and four inside the 5. None went for a touchback. That's how a punter becomes the MVP of a bowl game.

"I've never been around or seen a guy, or coached against a guy, that's been that good pinning people inside the 10-yard line," Craig Naivar, the Longhorns' special-teams coordinator, told ESPN in a phone interview. "Inside the 20 is automatic."

Naivar likens Dickson to a pitcher who has a full arsenal of plus pitches, with command of all of them, and a golfer who can shape a shot in either direction. If he wants the ball to hold against a left-to-right wind, Dickson can make it draw. Say he's trying to kick away from a returner who is lined up to the left, he can make it cut the other direction.

And he's long off the tee too.

"When I was at some of his tryouts with scouts and they're out there working him out with special-teams coordinators, every once in a while they just say, 'Just show us what you can do,' and he rips one for 70-plus or whatever, just like, 'OK,'" Naivar said. "It's almost like a golfer that's forced to hit a 3-iron but every once in a while he can hit his driver. It's pretty cool."

Dickson ranked second in the nation among qualified kickers over his final two college seasons with a net average of 47.4 yards.

"There was a lot of times where we had to rein him back and say, 'You can't sit here and rip a 65-yard punt because we've got to cover it,' you know?" Naivar said. "We really wanted height and we want over 40 yards and over a 4-second hang time, and we'll deal with whatever comes with that.

"But there were times where he'd rip a good one and we would swing the field."

One notable instance of that came in a game against TCU last season, when the Longhorns were backed up against their own end zone. Dickson bailed them out by booming a career-long 76-yard punt.

"We were in Fort Worth, and they have one of the better returners in college football, and he really just got ahold of it," Naivar recalled. "The wind wasn't significant. It wasn't like he kicked it and there was like a gale-force wind behind him. He has that type of leg where he can do that. The young man misplayed the ball, so he got some roll off of that, as well. I want to say we were punting from maybe the 4-, 5-, 6-yard line, and look up and now the opponent is starting the drive with the field totally flipped."

The movement Dickson can get on the ball was on display during a competition at the end of one of the Seahawks' rookie minicamp practices. It called for players who would never be asked to return punts -- offensive and defensive linemen, for instance -- to attempt to catch one of Dickson's. The balls were turning so drastically that they would have looked like shanks had they not hung in the air for so long and went so far.

"He has a couple kicks, especially going in, where he can just put some different spin on the ball and drop it a little bit differently, and it looks a little bit different for the returners, instead of just your classic end-over-end rugby-style kick or just a spiral," Brian Schneider said. "So there's a lot of different movement on the ball."

The Seahawks hope that will make life hard on opposing returners. It wouldn't be a surprise if it results in a couple of turnovers per season, especially when the weather starts to come into play, like it can at Seattle's CenturyLink Field.

"He's the only guy that I've ever seen at that position to be considered quote-unquote 'a weapon,' and he was," Texas coach Tom Herman told 710 ESPN Seattle. "He was one of our best defensive players, because he gave our defense such long fields time after time after time. And the one thing that he can do that is so extraordinary is if you're backed up, he can bomb you out with a 60-, 65-yarder; and if you stall around midfield, he can drop the thing pretty much wherever you tell him to drop it. That's a thing that he does on such a consistent basis.

"He's worth trading up in my opinion, because you'll soon find out he'll be one of your best defensive players."

As for the dropkick, Naivar said the Longhorns had it in their back pocket for certain situations, but Dickson never got the chance. He got to use it during the rookie minicamp in PAT situations, since the Seahawks didn't have a place-kicker there.

Comments from the team have indicated that Ryan, the Seahawks' longest-tenured player, will get a fair shot to compete for the punting job.

In making the point that rookies are still unknown quantities until proven otherwise, John Schneider pointed out that he was with the front office of a team that once drafted a punter in the third round "that completely failed."

(According to Pro Football Reference, the only punter who fits the description is B.J. Sander, who appeared in only 14 career games after the Packers drafted him in 2004. The punter who eventually took over for Sander in Green Bay? Ryan, coincidentally.)

But after sharing that cautionary tale, the general manager used that word again to describe Dickson -- unique.

"He can do stuff with the ball that we haven't seen yet," he said. "We're really intrigued to see how that translates. I'm not like a punter expert ... but this guy does stuff with the ball that's pretty amazing."