After watching his older brother Johnny be drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Kansas City Chiefs punter Tommy Townsend felt a he had a good chance to make it to the NFL.
And why not? He’d been following in his brother’s footsteps since high school. During Johnny’s junior year, the Braves of William R. Boone High School in Orlando needed a punter. After getting some lessons from one of their father’s friends — a former Florida State punter — Johnny got the job. Soon he was receiving scholarship offers that led him to the Florida Gators and ultimately the NFL, where he played one season for the Raiders in 2018.
Tommy liked the look of that.
“I kind of decided, ‘You know, I can do this too. Why can’t I do it?’ So, I kind of followed in his footsteps and here we are,” he told reporters in May.
But after a season at Tennessee (the alma mater of former Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt and his brother Britton Colquitt) followed by two seasons with the Gators, Tommy would go undrafted in 2020. That was OK, though, because after the draft concluded, multiple teams were interested in him — including the Chiefs.
“I had spoken to them a few times — some coaches with the Chiefs a few days before the draft — and just talking if I would be interested in potentially coming there as a free agent if I did go undrafted,” Townsend told Sports Illustrated’s “AllGators” just after the draft. “The conversation kind of just carried on, as we got into the seventh round, the conversations started getting a lot more real.”
The Chiefs were facing a quandary. Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub had rated Townsend the draft’s top punter — but the team was also targeting Tulane cornerback Thakarius BoPete Keyes. Which player would go first?
“We were very confident that Keyes would have been drafted,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said afterward. “In fact, his agent texted me with a text message from another team — I won’t say the team — but he was going to go, I think, four or five picks later.”
So the Chiefs rolled the dice, trading back into the seventh round to get Keyes — and Townsend was still there after the draft’s final selection. The Chiefs sealed the deal with a $7,500 signing bonus and another $75,000 guaranteed on Townsend’s rookie contract. But from Townsend’s perspective, the Chiefs were probably an easy choice. Brother Johnny had been one of five punters to play for the Raiders over 15 seasons — while the Chiefs had fielded just one: Colquitt.
That didn’t mean, however, there wouldn’t be competition to make the team. Before the draft, the Chiefs had signed former Notre Dame punter Tyler Newsome — and Colquitt was still on the team. But days later, the 15-year Chiefs veteran was released, setting up a training camp punter battle.
“It is going to be a true competition,” said Toub. “There’s really nobody out in front right now as we look at it. They both have really strong legs, really powerful. They consistently hit over 5.0 hang times, which is really impressive. Tommy’s a little more I would say clean in his technique as far as consistency, where as Tyler is more erratic with his technique but the results are the same. They both bomb the ball. We just need to clean Tyler up a little bit more.”
But when Toub spoke those words, no one knew how training camp would play out during the coronavirus pandemic. Faced with an 80-man facility limit — and a requirement that rosters be down to 80 players by mid-August — the Chiefs decided that a punter battle was a luxury they could no longer afford. On July 29, the team released Newsome — and Townsend stood alone.
Speaking with reporters on Friday, Townsend denied that Newsome’s release changed anything for him.
“I’m still preparing the same way,” he said. “I’m still on my toes, just trying to go out and perfrom the best I can and just keep getting better every single day. Since the NFL is completely different, I’m just trying to learn as much as I can as fast as I can, continuing to progress in everything that I can do — whether it’s punting or working on my holding with James Winchester and Harrison Butker; just trying to continue move forward there.”
Remarks like that make it clear that the young punter is absorbing the vibe of veteran Chiefs leaders like Patrick Mahomes and Tyrann Mathieu — but it’s also clear that he’s still a 23-year-old who is loving every minute of it.
“Training camp’s been awesome so far,” he told reporters. “I mean, it’s super exciting. It’s my rookie season — rookie training camp. Obviously it’s not how I expected my rookie training camp to go — a far as COVID precautions and stuff like that, our staff’s been doing a great job of keeping us socially-distanced and keeping everybody safe — but training camp’s been going great. I’m really excited to get going into the season.”
And he said that getting to the next level has required some adjustments.
“The biggest thing is scheme,” he said. “In college, we usually have ‘spread punt,’ but we’re using a pro punt formation, so it’s just a bit different. I’m used to having shields and a couple of offensive linemen as blockers seven yards in front of me. Now it’s a little bit more open. And also: just the speed of the game. Everybody in the NFL is super-talented. They’re great players and they play hard, so I think that’s the biggest difference: [the] talent all across the board is just tremendous.”
And that talent now includes his big brother Johnny, whom the Baltimore Ravens signed on Tuesday. If the elder Townsend makes the Ravens’ final roster, the Chiefs will again have half of an NFL punting duo — who will face each other in Baltimore during Week 3. The two played against each other once before — during Tommy’s freshman year with the Volunteers — but the Chiefs rookie doesn’t know how their parents will fall on their jersey selections.
“I can’t say my parents would go for either of us,” he chuckled. “I think they’d be split between [us]. They’re both tremendously supportive, so I don’t know. Dad might be in one jersey; Mom might be in the other. Who knows?”