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N.F.L. Punters Face a Perfect Pickle

“These guys are getting stronger and bigger, just like any other football player,” said Jeff Feagles, who punted for five franchises from 1988 to 2009 and holds the N.F.L. record for cumulative yardage. “There’s camps that these guys are going to now, starting their freshman year of high school. Back in the day there was no instruction, you just learned how to do it. The other thing is the Australian invasion; they have this repertoire of kicks we never had.”

Dickson — a 6-foot-2 Australian who weighs 208 pounds, with the biceps of a strong safety — is at the front of both trends. In the off-season, after an All-Pro rookie year in 2018 and an even better statistical campaign in 2020, he signed a four-year, $14.5 million contract extension ($8.5 million guaranteed), the second-most valuable punter’s contract in the N.F.L.

The deal was a culmination of Dickson’s development into a type of kicking scientist. As a 19-year-old, he attended Prokick Australia, an academy in Melbourne that since 2009 has turned some Australian rules football players into leading-edge punters. (Seattle’s Week 4 opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, employed another Prokick alumnus, Mitch Wishnowsky, who leads the N.F.L. in pin-deep percentage.)

Under the guidance of Nathan Chapman, a former Australian Football League punter and Prokick’s founder, Dickson refined the squibs and spinners used for ball control in Australia and picked up the high spiral technique favored by American punters in the hopes of getting a scholarship to a college in the United States.

Dickson punted for as long as the Australian daylight allowed. (“If you’re not watching him, he’ll punt a thousand balls in practice,” said Larry Izzo, the Seahawks’ special teams coach.) One morning, Chapman watched from afar while the teenager worked to increase his hang time — the interval a punt spends in the air, allowing the coverage team to run downfield. “He absolutely slaughtered the ball,” Chapman said. “Five seconds is the N.F.L. level; he was up around that five seconds before he even went to college.”

After his junior season at the University of Texas, when Dickson won the Ray Guy Award as the top collegiate punter, Seattle picked him in the fifth round of the 2018 draft. In his rookie season, he finished second in the N.F.L. in average punt distance. Last year, he retained that standing while pinning teams inside the 20 with 51 percent of his kicks, the third-best mark in the league.

The small sample size of kicks means that such rankings can fluctuate widely within a season. After an uncharacteristic run of four touchbacks in four games, Dickson’s net yardage has dropped to a middling 39.9 in 2021. But he pinned the 49ers inside their own 20 three times on Sunday, vaulting up the Puntalytics Punter Expected Points Added leaderboard.