It was decision time for Sam Martin last week and to help him make it, the Detroit Lions’ free-agent punter called on his close friend Matt Prater.
“My kids call him uncle Sam,’’ Prater said by phone Tuesday. “So we’re definitely pretty good friends.”
After seven seasons of punting, kicking off and placeholding for the Lions, Martin had offers to return to Detroit, and from the Broncos and two other teams.
“Denver wound up making the best offer,’’ Prater said. “I told him, “I don’t want to see you go but Denver is awesome. You’ll love it out there.”’
The Broncos got Martin on a three-year, $7.05 million contract – no NFL punter averages as much as $4 million a year and only five average more than $3 million per – that will pay him $2.5 million in 2020.
“Strong leg, very consistent,’’ Prater said. “He can kick off also. Another thing people don’t talk about is he’s a great holder. I don’t think they’ll miss a beat with (Brandon) McManus and him.’’
While Jason Elam had a much longer run of kicking success in Broncos history, Prater had the franchise’s best three-year run from 2011-13. He made a series of clutch, 50-yard-plus field goals during the Tebow season of 2011 and set a still-standing NFL record with a 64-yard field goal in 2013.
Off-field issues, though led to Prater’s surprise release in 2014 and to Detroit, where he teamed with Martin to give the Lions one of the league’s best kicking duos of the past six seasons.
“Prater has become over these years one of my best friends,’’ Martin said in a conference call with the Denver media Tuesday. “I was definitely close with him in the locker room. We spent every minute together. He’s been a great friend to me and a great teammate.
“He had nothing but good things to say about Denver. Since the day he walked in until the conversation yesterday, he’s just said it’s a great place to live, great people, great organization. He got me really excited about it.’’
Martin is more versatile than most punters – his repertoire includes the Aussie-style kick he’ll break out starting at his own 45 – probably because he’s a better athlete than most.
It was a long, captivating journey from the soccer fields growing up in Fayetteville, Ga. to football stadiums in Detroit and Denver.
“The football team at my high school (Starr’s Mill) always tried to get me to come out and kick,’’ Martin said. “I just never really wanted to risk it. Soccer was like my thing since I was like a kid. I never really considered it.’’
As a high school junior, Martin committed to play soccer at Georgia State.
“So my senior year, I was like, ‘OK, I’ll go do this kicking thing, give it a shot. Why not?’’’ he said.
He kicked field goals and kicked off. Must have been good at it because he started getting recruited by some bigger schools. As Martin found out, there is football in this country, and there are other sports.
“I started going on official visits for football. It was just a whole different world, something I had never experienced obviously being a soccer player,’’ he said. “I just started exploring that and maybe considering it a little bit. I went up to Appalachian State on an official visit. It was just such a different lifestyle and culture up in the mountains. It’s kind of got a similar vibe to Denver in a smaller sense.’’
He got off to a rough start at Appalachian State.
“I was just horrendous in my freshman year field goal kicking,’’ he said. “Going into the next year they kind of told me if you want to see the field you better learn how to punt.’’
After spending most of his life in soccer, then two years as a kicker, Martin found his calling. When he’s done with his first season in Denver, he’ll have made about $15 million. What was your life story, again?
“I didn’t really think that punting was going to get me into the NFL until probably my junior year,’’ he said. “I progressed fast. Every year I kind of improved. Then my senior year it was a big jump luckily. That’s when I started kind of getting noticed and it became reality. I really have only been punting now I guess 10 years total. Nonetheless it happened very fast for me. Then the next thing you know I was in Detroit.”
And now the Broncos.
“He’s definitely got a big leg and one of the top punters in the league,’’ Prater said.
These days, special teams coordinators like the Broncos’ Tom McMahon prefer to take some leg out of their punters in return for aim.
“I think directional punting is a big thing that he likes to do,’’ Martin said. “It’s a big part of his scheme. That’s kind of where I’ve been my whole career. I’ve thrived on my directional punting.
“I think between that and my hangtime those are two things that I really pride myself on. I try to be at the top of my game. Simply, the more hangtime and direction I can be, the easier it is to my cover guys. I think that’s two points there that are going to be emphasized throughout this year.”