Part 9, ST: When will we see a one-man kicking crew?
We haven't seen a team rely on one man to kick and punt since 1981. Are NFL teams, uh, kicking around that possibility? Also, who are the best returners in the draft?
Of the three leading punters in this NFL draft class, two also were their college team’s starting kicker for at least one season.
Of the three top kickers, one also doubled as his team’s punter.
Is the time right for an NFL team to save a roster spot and consolidate its kicking, punting and kickoff duties in one man?
“No. Zero,” said a special teams coordinator for an NFL team. “I believe it will never happen. Ever.”
Looks like Frank Corral can rest easily. The former Los Angeles Ram was the last specialist to attempt at least 10 field goals and 10 punts in one season. That was in 1981.
Penn State’s Jordan Stout, this year’s top punting prospect, had eight long-range field-goal attempts in 2019-’20 before becoming the Nittany Lions’ regular kicker last season. The No. 2 punter, San Diego State’s Matt Araiza, was the Aztecs’ field-goal kicker for three years before becoming the punter in 2021. Texas’ Cameron Dicker, the No. 2 kicker, added punting to his workload last season.
All three have the form and statistics to suggest they could be successful at either position. Other than emergency work, however, the kickers will be concentrating solely on kicking whereas the punters will practice strictly punting and holding.
The threat of injury looms largest as an insurmountable roadblock to uncovering the next Corral.
“What happens if Jordan Stout starts off the game and he’s kicking off, and he goes down to make a tackle and he gets hit and gets a concussion?” the coordinator said. “Who’s kicking field goals and who’s punting? You have nobody. At least nobody that can kick or punt to an NFL standard. You risk losing the game.”
Another major factor is leg fatigue.
“The long season leaves wear and tear even on a young leg,” another NFL coordinator said. “Probably wouldn’t be fair to a kid.”
The kicker-punter combination isn’t uncommon in college football largely because of roster size and a thinner pool of candidates. With 48 players dressing on Sunday (if there’s an eighth offensive lineman), NFL teams would almost never activate a backup specialist. Because college teams can dress many more players they have backup kickers and punters in uniform.
“A lot of times, because these (top) guys are so talented, even though they’re projected to be punters they’re also the best kicker on the team,” said one coordinator. “In college, the best guy is going to do it.”
Based on the casual eye test and stats, it’s difficult for fans to determine the strongest suit of a collegiate kicker-punter. NFL coaches and scouts make those evaluations yearly.
“He might be a good punter and just an OK kicker or a good kicker and just an OK punter,” one coordinator said. “You don’t have a high level at both. It’s hard for a guy to do both. The swing is so much different.”
In 2005, the Atlanta Falcons signed undrafted rookie Michael Koenen, who had done everything for four years at Western Washington. After punting, kicking off and handling 50-plus field goals as a rookie, Koenen was handed all placement duty in 2006 by coach Jim Mora and Joe DeCamillis, the Falcons’ special-teams.
“I think he’ll be fine,” Mora said a few days before the opener. “Am I going to tell him not to tackle anybody? No, I’m not going to do that. He’s a good little athlete. We’re just going to let him play the game.”
With the NFL game-day roster then set at 46 (with a third quarterback), Koenen was asked if his pioneering work might start a league-wide trend.
“It could,” he replied the week of the first game. “That’s how they used to do it. I guess it depends on how this trial goes.”
Koenen went 2 of 8 on field goals in the first two games, including four misses from 40 and in against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Georgia Dome in Week 2. Two days later, the experiment ended when the Falcons re-signed Morten Andersen, 46, to replace Koenen on placements. Koenen punted and kicked off for the Falcons and Bucs through 2014 but attempted just three more field goals.
A year later, Koenen looked back and said, “It’s easier to do just one thing, obviously. The best part about it is probably not having to take so many reps so there’s not as much wear and tear on your body.”
In 2009, Pat McAfee entered the NFL as a seventh-round draft choice of the Indianapolis Colts. At West Virginia, he was a four-year starter on placements and a 2 ½-year starter on punts. He made 73.4% of his field goal and posted a 43.7 average as a punter.
One NFL coach remembered McAfee telling him at the Senior Bowl that he hoped to do it all in the pros. Scott O’Brien, coordinating special teams in New England, said before the 2009 draft, “He’s strong at doing both but I think his upside is as a kicker. He may take longer than the rest to develop but he has the experience to develop.”
The Colts’ Adam Vinatieri was in the midst of his Hall of Fame career, so McAfee beat out fellow rookie Tim Masthay for the punting job. However, McAfee always politicked for the dual role and actually attempted two field goals in exhibition games, hitting from 31 and missing from 64. He envisioned himself as Vinatieri’s successor.
“I’ve yet to see a guy in the league that can do both at a high enough level,” Vinatieri said in June 2014. “The punting technique and form are a little different than field-goal kicking.
“There’s a lot of extra kicking. You’re focusing on one and maybe that’s pulling back on the other one just a little bit. And if you get injured, God forbid, all of a sudden you’ve got two (positions) to deal with instead of one guy.”
McAfee retired in February 2017 not long after the second of his two Pro Bowl seasons. Vinatieri’s career didn’t end until late 2019.
“Of anybody in the last 30 or 40 years, he could have done it even more so than Michael Koenen,” a veteran coordinator said. “Pat McAfee is way better than Koenen.”
According to Green Bay football historian Eric Goska, Corral (1978-’81) was one of only eight specialists since 1950 to have 100 field-goal attempts and 100 punts. The others were Sam Baker (1953-’69), Don Chandler (1956-’67), Tommy Davis (1960-’69), Danny Villaneuva (1960-’67), Mike Mercer (1961-’70), Don Cockroft (1968-’80) and Dennis Partee (1968-’75).
The 50-50 club from that era were Jim Bakken (1963-’78), Fred Cox (1963-’77), Dale Livingston (1968-’70) and Skip Butler (1971-’77).
It should be noted that the active roster from 1951-’56 was 33. It didn’t reach 40 until 1964.
According to David Neft, another football historian, the first member of the 100-100 club was Paddy Driscoll, who played from 1920-’29.
Meanwhile, the specialization at long snapper grows stronger by the year. One veteran coordinator said the last position player he could recall serving as the starting snapper was Joel Dreessen, a tight end for three teams from 2005-’13.
The coordinator said he could foresee the possibility of a position player doubling as the snapper far more than a kicker/punter handling double duty.
RANKING THE SPECIALISTS
1. CADE YORK, Louisiana State (6-1 ½, 205, no 40, Rounds 4-5): Declared a year early after starting for three years. “He has the best talent, production, upside,” said one NFL special-teams coach. “He’s big and strong. Made 15 of 19 from 50-plus. It’s unbelievable, it really is. He’s borderline cocky … but he’s got a good head on his shoulders.” His career long of 57 came with 23 seconds left in the fog to beat Florida, 37-34, in December 2020 after the Gators’ Evan McPherson, the rookie phenom for the Bengals, missed from 51 as time expired at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville. ”Everybody questions why he never kicked off,” said another coach. “Just one time. But they had a four-year kickoff guy. He can kick off. He’s exceptionally strong. He can do it. He proved that at the combine.” Made 81.8% of his field goals (54 of 66) and all but four of 168 extra points. “He struggled a little bit at the combine,” one coach said. “Make no excuses for it. But his pro day was outstanding. And he played at LSU; that’s a lot of pressure.” From McKinney, Texas.
2. CAMERON DICKER, Texas (6-1, 216, no 40, 5-6): The great Raven Justin Tucker came out of Texas also having kicked and punted. His career FG mark was 83.3%. In the 2012, Tucker was rated behind the likes of Blair Walsh, Randy Bullock and Greg Zuerlein. “I’m not saying this guy’s Justin Tucker but Justin did both, too,” one coach said. “He was just kind of OK statistically, and Dicker’s kind of the same way. If he just concentrates on kicking field goals and kicking off, and drops the punting part, he’ll help himself.” Dicker did all the kicking and kicking off for four years before taking over as the punter in 2021. Made 60 of 79 field goals (75.9%) and all but four of 210 extra points. His 50-plus career numbers were four of eight. Made 86.7% as a senior, his best year. “His season was good, and he had a phenomenal combine and a phenomenal pro day,” said another coach. “He’s kind of goofy but in a good way. He can laugh at himself. He has mental toughness that a lot of kids just don’t have.” Beat Oklahoma as a freshman with a 40-yarder in the closing seconds; converted a pair of walk-offs (26, 33) in 2019. Averaged 46.8 punting (44.8 net) in 2021. “York is so much more talented,” said one coach. “But I think he’s good enough to be picked in the fourth or fifth round based on his season.” From Austin, Texas.
3. GABE BRKIC, Oklahoma (6-2, 195, no 40, 7-FA): Fourth-year junior. Held the job from late September 2019 on. “A big statistic for me is what their field-goal percentage is over 40,” said one coach. “That’s a good indicator of leg strength. He’s better there than Dicker.” Converted 10 of 14 from 50-plus and 57 of 69 overall (82.6%). Was perfect (17 of 17) in 2019, including a 31-yard boot that beat Baylor in the last 2 minutes. “He’s got a big leg,” said another coach. “He was a little inconsistent but he’s very talented.” Missed just one of 160 conversions. Never had a field goal blocked. Career kickoff average was 61.6 yards; touchback rate was 49.2%. From Chardon, Ohio.
OTHERS: James McCourt, Illinois; Caleb Shudak, Iowa; Nick Sciba, Wake Forest; Jonathan Garibay, Texas Tech; Andrew Mevis, Iowa State.