More and more, kickers proving worthy of draft picks
In the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, available on tablets on Oct. 24 and newsstands Oct. 25, Tim Layden looks at the cult of the 63-yard field goal (get an inside glimpse at that story here). Below, Chris Burke argues for more draft picks to be spent on kickers.
During Detroit's come-from-behind win over Philadelphia in Week 6, Jason Hanson hit both of his extra points and connected on all four field goal tries. In the process he moved past John Carney for third place on the NFL's career scoring list, his current total of 2,075 points behind only Morten Anderson and Gary Anderson.
All 2,075 points that Hanson has scored have come as a member of the Detroit Lions. Detroit picked Hanson in Round 2 of the 1992 draft and has not looked back. Through years and years of rebuilding and constant roster turnover, the Lions have remained set at kicker.
Each Sunday, Hanson stands as an argument against those who believe drafting a kicker is a waste of a pick.
This past draft was a big one for the specialists. A combined six kickers and punters heard their names called, the highest total since 2007. And the early results are strong.
St. Louis rookie Greg Zuerlein (Round 6, pick 171) has hit 17 of 20 field goals, including five from 50-plus yards. Blair Walsh, selected four picks after Zuerlein by Minnesota, is 16 for 17 in field-goal attempts on the year. Jacksonville's Bryan Anger, whose selection in the third round at No. 70 overall was roundly criticized, ranks No. 3 in the NFL in net punting average. Even Carolina's Brad Nortman (Round 6, pick 207) has been decent despite some early struggles, pinning 11 punts inside the opponents' 20.
All of this begs the question: Should teams more willingly spend draft picks to find kickers and punters?
Tom Miner was the first kicker ever selected in the NFL Draft, taken in the third round by the Steelers back in 1954. He chose to play in Canada instead, before suiting up for the Steelers four years later -- his one and only season in the NFL.
The second, Don Chandler in the fifth round in 1956, spent 12 seasons in the league, handling both the kicking and punting duties for the Giants and later the Packers. He made 94 career field goals, racked up nearly 29,000 yards punting and helped the Packers win Super Bowls I and II.
And, since Miner and Chandler broke the mold, that's pretty much how things have gone for kickers and punters in the draft. Some turn out to be invaluable members of their franchises; most fall into the abyss. Pretty much exactly the same story as every positional history in the draft.
Unlike at quarterback, for example, the plethora of readily available kicker/punter fallback options lead most teams to worry about specialists after the draft. But finding a really special kicker is like buying a random gadget at Brookstone: You don't know you need one until you see it.
Getting around the dime-a-dozen perception surrounding kickers is tough. Heck, the Redskins just cut a struggling Billy Cundiff and nabbed Kai Forbath, undrafted last season, off the free-agent wire. Forbath is now 4 for 4 and a burgeoning hero in Washington, thanks to how badly Cundiff struggled.
That constant search for kicking help, though, can be frustrating -- and can cost teams games in the process. That's why five teams (Jacksonville, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Denver and Tampa Bay) used their franchise tag on a kicker this past offseason. Denver drafted Jason Elam in 1993, then had him in tow for the next 15 seasons. Oakland has featured Sebastian Janikowski on special teams since he was a first-round pick in 2000. And Jason Hanson has been making kicks for the Lions since 1992.
Even as high as the first round, the draft is a bit of a crapshoot. Get into the third day and the late rounds, and it's like trying to find a needle in a haystack. So, where's the logic in drafting the 25th-best linebacker prospect in Round 6 instead of taking the best kicker?
Still not buying it?
Maybe this will help: Five of the top six kickers this season, in terms of field goals made, are draft picks still with their original teams. One is Stephen Gostkowski, a fourth-round pick of the Patriots in 2006, who went 3 for 3 on field goals in last season's AFC title game, while the undrafted Cundiff shanked a potential game-winner.
There are a high number of undrafted kickers that had loads of success in the NFL -- Adam Vinatieri arguably being the most famous case. A kicker draft pick, however, can be among the greatest investments a franchise can make. The top 10 highest-scoring kickers in NFL history have combined for 20,604 points; seven of those players were drafted.
Find the right guy and you can be set for a decade, maybe two. Teams work frantically to find the best available options for every position on their roster. But many of them still choose to ignore an obvious path to setting the kicker and punter spots in stone. The successes of the last two draft classes may help to change those plans.