If you followed the NFL in the past week, you might’ve come across some familiar special teams names.
There are 41 NFL kickers who have attempted a field goal in 2019. Five of them — yes, five — have been on the Vikings roster in the last two years. And most of them made the wrong type of headlines in Week 13.
Kai Forbath missed an extra point in New England’s Sunday night loss to Houston. Daniel Carlson missed an extra point and a field goal for Oakland in a loss to Kansas City. Current Viking Dan Bailey missed an extra point in the team’s 37-30 loss to Seattle. Chase McLaughlin — a Vikings practice squad member early in 2019 — was claimed by the Indianapolis Colts, his fifth franchise of the season. Kaare Vedvik? Well, he’s unemployed for the time being.
Such is the status of NFL placekicking, a once-stable position now in flux, where teams are churning through legs faster than ever in search of consistency.
Despite Bailey’s miss in Seattle, the Vikings are pleased with the 31-year-old’s work this season. His 88.9% rate on field goals is seventh in the NFL, and while his three missed extra points are undesirable, he is tied for the third-most makes in the league with 33.
“I think he’s doing a really nice job,” said head coach Mike Zimmer. “I think [kicking coach] Nate [Kaeding] has done a good job with him, helping him. I think the operation, [Britton] Colquitt has been really solid holding. I think that helps as well, and he’s kicking the ball good.”
Despite a chaotic preseason where the Vikings had kicking, punting and longsnapping competitions, they’ve leveled out nicely in the regular season in terms of their kicking and punting games. Meanwhile, the rest of the league is experiencing the type of uneasiness usually reserved for the Vikings.
Through 13 weeks of the season, the NFL field-goal kicking average sits at 79.9%, the first time since 2003 that kickers are on pace to finish below 80%. It’s a sudden decline that came out of nowhere. In the five seasons between 2014-18, kickers punctually ended the year between 84-85%. With kickers’ legs getting stronger all the time and special teams being emphasized as much as ever in the NFL, why the abrupt nosedive?
“It’s kind of tough to say,” Bailey said in an interview with Zone Coverage. “I don’t know. It’s weird.”
There are, however, a handful of theories to toss around.
For one, the reliable old guard is simultaneously showing its age.
There are eight kickers 35 years or older that have attempted field goals this season, and they’ve kicked at a collective 74.8% clip, 95 of 127. Adam Vinatieri (47), Matt Bryant (44) and Robbie Gould (37) have posted career-low field-goal percentages. Matt Prater (35) has hit a five-year low. Mike Nugent (37) has struggled in limited attempts. Of that group, only 35-year-old Mason Crosby is enjoying a strong season with a career-high 93.3% success rate.
“I think some of the best kickers in the league peak at Year 12, 13 and 14,” said Vikings special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf.
But many beyond that point are scuffling.
As the veteran class of kickers has declined and some have switched teams, franchises have begun seeking replacements, leading to a historic influx of young legs. Fifteen kickers age 25 and younger have attempted 10 or more field goals in 2019. That’s the most in the Super Bowl era, topping the previous high of 12 in 2015. Back in 2004, there were only five kickers that young who attempted 10-plus field goals.
Maalouf discussed some of the challenges they might encounter.
“I think your timing, your tempo to the ball,” Maalouf said, “if that’s not consistent, if that changes a lot, then just like a golf swing it’s going to change the trajectory of the kick, and it could affect everything.”
The 25-and-under kickers have been average in 2019, kicking at a collective 81.7% rate. Many of them have been waiver-wire finds as teams pursue their next franchise kicker, hoping to strike gold.
Of the 15, only five are kicking for a team that drafted them: Jason Sanders (Miami), Jake Elliott (Philadelphia), Harrison Butker (Kansas City), Matt Gay (Tampa Bay) and Austin Seibert (Cleveland). Two others — Carlson (Oakland) and Zane Gonzalez (Arizona) — were drafted, but are no longer with their original teams. Carlson, a fifth-round pick, famously missed three field goals in his second game with the Vikings, costing him a job in Minnesota.
The other eight are undrafted talents, many of whom have bounced around from team to team. Aldrick Rosas (New York Giants), Younghoe Koo (Atlanta), Eddy Pineiro (Chicago), Wil Lutz (New Orleans), Joey Slye (Carolina), Michael Badgley (Los Angeles Chargers) and McLaughlin (Indianapolis) have all been with multiple franchises before landing in their current spot. Only Ka’imi Fairbairn of the Texans, undrafted in 2016, remains with his original franchise.
The demand for reliable kicking has never been higher. Neither has the pressure, and part of that is from the elevated standard for kickers.
“It’s easy to just make a brash decision based on the now, but in my eyes you kind of have to have a little bit longer leash,” Bailey said, “but maybe we’re a victim of our own success. It’s a double-edged sword. You want the standard to be high, but you want a little leeway when you’re not meeting that standard.”
In the early 1990s, kicking averages hovered between 70-75%. A quarter century later, kickers are expected to be 10-15% better than that. They’re also expected to hit from distance, a demand that’s increased dramatically in the last decade — and a contributing factor to the leaguewide struggles in 2019.
Kickers have attempted 111 kicks of 50 yards or more this season, putting the league on pace for 145 attempts. Just a decade ago in 2009, however, there were barely over 100 attempts, and kickers were hitting longer kicks at just 53%.
But since 2011, the league has seen 140 or more long-distance attempts each season as coaches have gotten more aggressive and teams have begun prioritizing big legs. After nearly a decade of kickers hitting between 60-70% of long attempts, NFL specialists are back to 53% from 50 and beyond, the lowest mark since 2009.
“Percentages are going up, guys are becoming more accurate and more consistently accurate,” said Bailey, “so I feel like that line for makeable kicks keeps going back and back, right? Because it’s like, ‘He made that kick, he made that kick, he made that kick.’ You almost get greedy in sense.”
Teams may realize that patience is pivotal when working with young, impressionable kickers. While the Vikings haven’t taken that approach with youngsters like Carlson and Vedvik, they’ve been more patient with the veteran Bailey after he tied a career-low 75% on field goals in 2018 and had a rocky start to training camp in 2019. The Vikings brought in Kaeding, a career 86% field goal kicker, to gave Bailey additional guidance, which seems to be paying dividends.
“We talk about mechanics, fundamentals, mindset,” Bailey said. “We kind of cover it all. He’s been a good asset to have. He did it for a pretty high level for a long time. Just having somebody else that’s actually been out there in that situation, gone through what you’re going through. Just the more input and discussion you can have, I don’t think it can hurt. I don’t think you can over-analyze it.”
Perhaps 2019 is an anomaly and kicking continuity will be restored. The Vikings, for now, are grateful not to be part of the downward trend.
“As long as our guy stays above the average, I’m OK with that,” Maalouf said. “That’s everybody else’s problem.”