Last Modified: Saturday, December 22, 2012 5:37 PM
METAIRIE (AP) — Saints punter and kickoff specialist Thomas Morstead prepared for the 2012 season as if it would be his audition for a new contract.
When he unexpectedly received a lucrative extension as training camp began, the pressure was off in some respects. That, however, didn't change Morstead's approach, and he now finds himself poised to set NFL records.
"You're geared up for that last (contract) year and I got my deal early," Morstead said this week of the six-year extension worth $21.9 million he signed in late July.
"In some ways the pressure's on because now they're paying you what they think is your value, so you better perform at that level or you'll lose your job soon enough," Morstead added.
He won't have to worry about losing his job anytime soon. If anything, he might have an extra game to play in Hawaii.
With fan voting now closed for the Pro Bowl, Morstead leads all NFC punters with 104,563 votes, making him a front-runner to get the nod for the NFL's all-star game, depending on how voting by coaches and players turns out.
"His numbers speak for themselves," Saints special teams coach Greg McMahon said. "No one would be more tickled if Thomas made it (to the Pro Bowl) than myself and really our franchise. ... He's plenty good enough and he's a great worker and he's a great teammate."
Morstead leads the NFL with a net punting average of 44.7 yards. Last season, San Francisco 49ers' Andy Lee set the current single-season record in that category at 43.99 yards.
To Morstead, no statistic is more important than the net punting average, which takes into account not just the distance of a punt but how far it is returned. Morstead has shown he can blast punts more than 70 yards down the field, but doing so can be counterproductive if he outkicks the coverage and gives opposing returners room to make plays coming back up the field.
So Morstead came into this season with the goal of setting a record for net punting and wasn't shy about saying so.
"I don't feel bad in going for something like that," he said. "It's 100 percent good for the team. It's not like trying to break the gross average. If I try and bang it 60 yards every time and they get big returns every time, that's a selfish sort of thing."
"What's neat about it is that it's a team record. It's not how far I punted. It's how far I punted minus how many return yards our team allowed. It's our punt team record. It's pretty cool."
Morstead is always looking to carefully calibrate the power and direction of his punts, even changing to a rugby-style kick on short punts, to get the optimum distance while sharply reducing an opponent's prospects for a return by either having the ball land out of bounds or by pinning the returner close to a boundary.
"We're big on directional punting," Morstead said. "It's kind of like golfing a little bit, having different clubs in your bag. What are you going to hit this time? You can always have those different clubs in your bag to pull out. What's nice is the other team doesn't know what kind of club I have, so you can kind of pick and choose your spots in what you're going to do."
At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Morstead does not look out of place on a football field as some specialists do and has a powerful leg, routinely hitting kickoffs through the end zone for touchbacks. His gross punting average is still an impressive 50.3 yards, second longest in the NFL behind Miami's Brandon Field (50.6). The Saints noticed Morstead's leg strength and all around athleticism when he was at SMU. New Orleans used a fifth-round draft choice on the Texas native in 2009.
While punters are rarely drafted, the Saints are pleased with their decision.
"His work ethic's phenomenal," McMahon said, even comparing Morstead to locker room leaders like star quarterback Drew Brees. "His attention to detail and his routine is a lot like Brees. It's really something."
NOTES: The Saints added RB Pierre Thomas to their injury report with knee soreness and he was limited in practice. ... RT Zach Strief (right ankle) returned to practice on a limited basis. ... RB Chris Ivory (hamstring) and CB Patrick Robinson (groin) also were limited. ... FB Jed Collins (right toe, left knee) was held out of practice.