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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Brett Kern turns a football into a weapon when he punts, pinning opponents near their goal line or leaving returners nowhere to run by angling a ball right at the sideline.
After the Tennessee Titans punter boomed a 74-yarder in a win over Cincinnati, matching the longest punt this season, the NFL came calling with a random drug test.
Yes, of a punter, and that's why he's the league's No. 1 player at his position in The Associated Press positional rankings released Friday.
Kern received six of 11 first-place votes in a 10-points-to-one-point system for 100 points and an easy margin over Oakland's Marquette King (86). Kern keeps getting better every year, and he appears headed toward the first Pro Bowl berth with the best season of his career.
"A 10-year veteran few outside of Music City have heard of," said AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner, who's based in New York. "But Kern's numbers are brilliant for a team with a so-so offense."
The Titans punter leads the NFL averaging 51.4 yards per punt, which would tie the NFL record for a season set by Hall of Famer Sammy Baugh in 1940 if Kern keeps that pace over the final four games. Kern also leads the league with a 45.4-yard net average. AP's Simmi Buttar, also based in New York, notes Kern has 30 punts of at least 50 yards this season.
Kern is in his ninth season with Tennessee after being claimed off waivers from Denver in 2009. AP's Josh Dubow, based in San Francisco, said Kern has had a major boost in production, improving his gross and net averages by about 7 yards each to top this list.
For AP's Dave Campbell based in Minnesota, Kern averaging more than 50 yards per punt was enough.
"And to paraphrase Forrest Gump: That's about all you have to say about that," Campbell said.
King also is having the best season of his career, averaging 49.2 yards per punt.
"He's not just an excellent punter, he's got swagger and he doesn't care that haters just want him to punt and shut up," said AP's Rob Maaddi, based in Philadelphia.
The Rams' Johnny Hekker was the only other punter receiving multiple first-place votes with three, and he finished fourth in the rankings with 74 points. Houston's Shane Lechler and Baltimore's Sam Koch also got one each, and Lechler finished third with 74 points.
Only Kern, King, Hekker and Lechler were on all 11 ballots, with 21 punters receiving votes.
"Lechler keeps on kickin' at 41 years old, and he remains one of the games steadiest and most consistent punters," said AP's Dennis Waszak, based in New York. "The seven-time Pro Bowl selection is the NFL's career leader in punting average at 47.5 yards and has the league's longest active streak of games played."
A three-time Pro Bowl pick, Hekker led the NFL with 51 punts inside the 20 last season. He isn't getting as many opportunities to kick this season with Los Angeles' offense humming along so well.
"Hekker is easily the league's best punter with the power for long kicks and the control to avoid touchbacks," Dubow said. "He can even throw it as well with nine completions on fakes."
Koch leads the NFL placing 31 punts inside the 20, and he's tied for the second-most punts this season with 66. He finished fifth in the rankings.
"Consistently outstanding, an inside-the-20 machine, and plays a big role in Justin Tucker's success as Baltimore's holder," Maaddi said.
Dallas' Chris Jones finished sixth with 27 points.
"Only Koch has dropped more punts inside the 20-yard line than Jones," Campbell said.
Thomas Morstead of New Orleans ranked seventh with 25 points. Kevin Huber of Cincinnati and Cleveland's Britton Colquitt tied for eighth with 18 points. Carolina's Michael Palardy, in just his second season, rounded out the Top 10.
EDITOR'S NOTE — The Associated Press is ranking the top 10 players at a different position every week of the NFL season, based on votes by Pro Football Hall of Famer James Lofton and AP football writers Simmi Buttar, Dave Campbell, Schuyler Dixon, Josh Dubow, Howard Fendrich, Rob Maaddi, Arnie Stapleton, Teresa M. Walker, Dennis Waszak Jr. and Barry Wilner. This feature is sent on Fridays.
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