INDIANAPOLIS — Early into pro football’s optimism season, a personnel executive who works for an NFC playoff team stops inside a convention center hallway. “I’m not sure if this makes sense. You wouldn’t necessarily think of that position in this way,” he says. “It might not be the most important position we evaluate. But it’s one of the most difficult positions to evaluate.”
The executive stops and shakes his head. “It’s difficult,” he says, adding a “really” to emphasize he’s being serious.
He’s not talking about finding a franchise quarterback, an elite pass rusher or even a regular offensive or defensive starter. He’s talking about the process of discovering kickers, of which there were four among 330 pro hopefuls at the NFL Scouting Combine. Their legs can kick teams into or out of the playoffs. They can seal Super Bowl wins. Or miss attempts that end seasons. Or cost personnel executives their jobs.
What’s odd and difficult about kickers and how NFL teams evaluate them is that every off-season, so much money and time is spent measuring everything from a prospect’s height to his background to his intelligence. But what franchises cannot measure is what separates a kicker with NFL leg strength from a kicker with NFL leg strength who can also withstand the psychological quagmire inherent to that position. They cannot, in other words, measure what goes on—and what will go on—inside a kicker’s brain.
Take Roberto Aguayo, for example. Before he entered the 2016 NFL draft, he converted 96.7% of his overall attempts at Florida State, the best rate in college football history. He was close to automatic as one can get in placekicking. He didn’t miss one kick inside 40 yards. He didn’t botch a single extra point. When Tampa Bay traded up to select Aguayo with a second second-round pick last spring, the move seemed to make sense—or as much sense as drafting a kicker in the second round can make.
Aguayo missed a field goal in Week 2, another in Week 3, two more in Week 5 and another in Week 6. He botched two extra points. He finished the season with 22 makes in 31 attempts, good for a conversion rate of 71%, or 26% worse than he kicked in college. That isn’t to say the Bucs made the wrong move, or that Aguayo won’t have a long, storied, Pro Bowl-type career. That’s only to say that with kickers in particular there is no such thing as a sure thing.
“Kicking is mostly mental,” says Michael Husted, who kicked for four teams, including the Bucs, over nine NFL seasons and now works as a personal kicking coach. “Whether [Aguayo] wants to admit it or not, there’s pressure with being that high of a draft pick. It could even be subconscious.”
Husted then points to a kicker he has worked with, Wil Lutz, who went undrafted out of Georgia State, signed with the Ravens before the 2016 season and performed well in practice. The Ravens cut him but recommended him to the Saints, and Lutz became the New Orleans kicker last season. He went 28 for 34 on field goals, good for an 82.4% success rate.
“It’s all relative,” Husted says. “The Patriots took Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth round [in 2006]. He has had an amazing career. But so did Robbie Gould. He was a 60% field goal kicker at Penn State.” (Gould made 63.9% of his college field goal attempts.)
Husted is right. Of the three kickers drafted in the fourth round or earlier since 2006, Aguayo stumbled, Alex Henery (fourth round, Eagles) lasted four seasons and Gostkowski remains with the Patriots, although he uncharacteristically struggled last season. Meanwhile, of the five kickers with the best conversion rates in ’16 (minimum 20 attempts)—Baltimore’s Justin Tucker, Atlanta’s Matt Bryant, Tennessee’s Ryan Succop, Seattle’s Steven Hauschka and Kansas City’s Cairo Santos—four went undrafted. Only Succop heard his name called … by the Chiefs … in ’09 … with the 256th pick.
There it was: a kicker as Mr. Irrelevant.