A year and a half ago, Thomas Morstead was walking through Indianapolis International Airport when he spotted Jake Bailey eating alone at a restaurant.
Morstead, a longtime punter for the New Orleans Saints, had just wrapped up his duties as an NFL Players Association rep at the 2019 Scouting Combine. Bailey, meanwhile, was one of just four kickers to receive an invitation to the annual event for draft prospects.
Without knowing Bailey had listed him as one of his favorite punters growing up, Morstead decided to stop by and say hello. The two ended up having dinner together, as Bailey picked Morstead’s brain about life in the NFL.
“He was definitely asking questions and trying to gather information,” Morstead recalled via telephone earlier this week. “I tried to encourage him and tried to give him my tips for ways to go about being a professional and things that I think are important to focus on.”
Two months later, the Patriots drafted Bailey in the fifth round with the 163rd overall pick. (Interestingly, the Saints drafted Morstead in the 2009 draft with the 164th pick.)
Bailey has since emerged as one of the best punters in the NFL. This season, 23 of his 40 punts have landed inside the 20-yard line. He also leads the league in net punt yardage, averaging 46.1 yards.
So, what would Morstead, a 12-year NFL veteran, tell Bailey now?
“I think there’s a myth among players that, at some point, you’ll have it figured out,” Morstead said. “That just doesn’t exist. You don’t arrive at someplace, like, ‘OK, I’ve got it made.’
“It’s always going to be hard. It’s always going to be challenging. The game evolves. The game changes. The expectations change with that.”
Morstead encouraged the 23-year-old Bailey, and other young punters, to maintain a beginner’s mentality, open to being malleable. And it certainly seems like Bailey wants to do just that.
“He’s not satisfied with where he’s at,” said Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater. “He always wants to get better.”
A sound decision
Jon Wallace had his back turned during practice one afternoon when he heard a sound.
“I was like, ‘That just sounded different,’” he recalled.
Wallace, now in his eighth season as head football coach at Santa Fe Christian, a private school in Solana Beach, Calif., turned around and saw freshman Jake Bailey, who had just booted the ball high in the air.
Bailey, at the time, was a defensive back and wide receiver, just messing around on the sideline. But that thump? That thump got Wallace thinking: Bailey should try kicking.
Wallace looked at former NFL kicker Michael Husted, the team’s special teams coordinator. The two shared the same thought: This kid has some potential.
From there, Husted, who played nine NFL seasons after going undrafted in 1993, began to work with Bailey on learning the ropes of kicking. Bailey’s athletic background — he played soccer growing up and also competed in sprints, high jump, and long jump on the high school track team — should only make the process easier, his coaches thought.
According to Wallace, Bailey was, by far, the fastest player on the team and boasted the best vertical jump as well. (At the combine, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.72 seconds and jumped 33 inches.)
“He was probably the best athlete in his class, and that was probably the case all the way through, freshman to senior year,” Wallace said.
As they expected, kicking seemed to come quite naturally to Bailey.
“I watch him kick-off and he kicks-off a touchback, which is hardly ever seen by high school freshmen,” Husted said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, who is this kid?’”
Bailey clearly had the leg, along with the “natural pop,” but he needed to harness that raw talent. One of Husted’s initial goals was to teach Bailey how to leverage his whole body, not just his leg, in order to maximize the kick.
Once Bailey started to get the hang of things, Husted would often have him follow a script mimicking a game during practice. Bailey would warm up as he would before a game, and sit on the sideline for varying amounts of time before Husted would present him with a situation. Bailey would then go out and attempt the kick. If he made it, he would immediately prepare for a kickoff. If he missed it, he would have to sit on the sideline.
“We wouldn’t go out and kick, kick, kick,” Husted said.
Husted also guided Bailey with the mental aspect of a specialist role. He advised Bailey to take a stack of index cards and write different situations on them, including details such as distance, score, and hash mark. In the days leading up to the game, Bailey would shuffle the deck, pull out a card, close his eyes, and visualize himself at that moment.
Their work translated to the field. As a sophomore, Bailey converted 44 of his 47 point-after attempts (93.6 percent) and was 5 of 8 on field-goal attempts (62.5 percent), with a long of 35 yards. As a junior, he converted 20 of his 22 point-after attempts (90.9 percent) and knocked down all six of his field-goal attempts, with a long of 50 yards.
Oh, and he was still contributing on offense and defense, too.
“We had a game out in the desert, where we couldn’t do anything outside of Jake,” Wallace said. “I think he had two interception returns for touchdowns — one was 104 yards picked off in the end zone, one was 75 yards — and then I think he had another receiving touchdown, and then he kicked a field goal. He scored all our points. The Jake Bailey show.”
By his senior year, Bailey had developed a reputation as one of the best kickers in the area. Because of an ankle injury, he stopped playing his other positions, instead exclusively keeping his role within special teams.
As a senior, Bailey made 26 of his 27 point-after attempts (96.3 percent) and 12 of his 16 field-goal attempts (80 percent), with a long of 54 yards. He also started punting that season, averaging 44.1 yards per punt. Ten of his 27 punts landed inside the 20-yard line.
“He kept us in games that we shouldn’t have been in, just because he would pin the other team deep, we would be hitting field goals that we shouldn’t be hitting,” Wallace said. “He was such a difference maker for us.”
Bailey only had a year of experience as the starting punter, when an opposing coach came over to Wallace during pre-game warm-ups just to tell him: “It’s not fair how he can flip the field like that.”
The same sound that caught Wallace’s ear in 2011 is what gave Pete Alamar confidence that Bailey would have success as a punter.
“It’s not what your eyes tell you a lot of times when you’re looking at punters,” Alamar said. “It’s what your ears tell you. When Jake makes contact with the football, it’s a very distinct thump. Guys that don’t have that, it tends to be a little tinny, a little hollow.”
Alamar, now in his ninth season as special teams coordinator at Stanford, was already familiar with Bailey because the pair had met at a summer specialist camp before Bailey’s sophomore year of high school. When Bailey returned the summer before his junior year, Alamar told him he potentially had a future in punts and kickoffs. No more field goals, though.
A rotating cast of interested Pac-12 coaches filtered through his high school, but Bailey committed to Stanford to play for Alamar.
“I really learned the ropes of punting, the ins and outs, [from Coach Alamar],” Bailey said. “I credit a lot, all of my development as a punter, to him.
Like Wallace and Husted, Alamar could see Bailey had the raw talent and was full of potential. So, they got to work.
First up: Catching and “molding” the ball. Bailey needed to field the snap and then put the ball in a position so that when he dropped it, the ball would be at the ideal angle. Alamar often set Bailey up at a Jugs machine, where he took rep after rep after rep, catching and “molding” the ball.
Next up: Dropping the ball. After catching and “molding” the ball, Bailey would then drop it into Alamar’s hands right at the height Bailey would typically punt. Alamar would freeze so that they could assess the position of the ball. To land a punt within the 10-yard line, Bailey has said it’s important to have the nose angled down.
“If you don’t have a consistent drop, you don’t have an ability to be a consistent punter,” Alamar said.
Last up: Swinging his leg. Unlike kicking, which is more rotational, punting is a very linear motion. In an effort to discourage him from over-swinging, Alamar liked to remind Bailey, “85 is the new 100.” A swing at 85 percent, he says, actually produces maximum efficiency.
Alamar would also sometimes ask Bailey to punt miniature soccer balls to force him to locate the sweet spot of the foot on the sweet spot of a smaller surface.
Once Bailey had the motion down, the focus became the direction of the ball. Once he was able to place the ball where he wanted, the focus became consistency.
Alamar wanted Bailey to reach something he calls “unconscious confidence,” where one can correctly perform a task over and over again to the point he no longer has to think about it.
Their hours and hours of work paid off. Bailey finished his college career as Stanford’s all-time career leader in average punting yardage (43.81 yards per game). In December 2018, he recorded the longest punt in school history, an 84-yarder against Cal.
Alamar reflects on those four years working with Bailey fondly — and still can picture the smile on Bailey’s face after a great punt.
“There’s that feeling of, ‘Ah, I just did exactly what I wanted to do,’” Alamar said. “That look on his face, when it all goes right, that’s the look that you remember forever.”
Swing and a hit
Ahead of the 2019 NFL Draft, the Patriots weren’t on Bailey’s radar. Most of his pre-draft buzz involved the San Francisco 49ers, the only other team to draft a punter that year, taking Mitch Wishnowsky in the fourth round.
“The Patriots came out of nowhere,” Wallace said. “Maybe that’s just the craftiness of the great Bill Belichick.”
While Belichick’s affinity for punters, particularly left-footed ones, is well-documented, Bailey is actually right-footed — and the first right-footed, full-time punter in Belichick’s 20 years with the Patriots. At the time, Bailey didn’t know what to make of the decision. But Alamar told him not to worry.
“You’re going to a team that absolutely has a great appreciation for special teams,” he told him. “You’re going to have to go in and compete now. They’re bringing you in for a reason.”
About a month after training camp began, Bailey beat out Ryan Allen for the starting job. What was more impressive to Alamar, though, was the mental fortitude required to navigate that situation. The trio of Allen, kicker Stephen Gostkowski, and long snapper Joe Cardona had spent the previous five seasons together, winning two Super Bowls.
“There was no doubt in my mind that Jake had the physical talent to go and compete at that level and play for a long time,” Alamar said. “But I’m just really proud of the way he was able to handle everything that it takes to go win a job in that league.”
Nicole Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.