Over on the mothership there's a review of the "biggest roster questions" the Bengals are facing for next season. The usual suspects are there (QB, RB, WR, DL) as well as some new twists (FB, a blocking TE). The motivation behind these speculations, of course, is to determine who's the right blend of talent and reliability to slot into every position to, at least, get the team past its dismal 4-12 mark of last year. There's a pretty glaring omission on this list though. Yep, you guessed it, Frank Stallone.
No, I mean: kicker.
Now, in case any of you were wondering, the answer is yes -- I am a fan of 80s Billy Joel music. And yes, I do think this scene from the movie Stepbrothers is awesome (warning: there's some cursing here). Why am I telling you this? Well...I don't remember...no wait, yes I do. It's because whenever I think about the kickers the Bengals currently have under contract -- Mike Nugent and Clint Stitser -- I hear that Joel song "A Matter of Trust" echoing in my brain. That's a forced correlation sure, but nevertheless, I just don't have a great deal of faith in either of these guys for next season.
The team's kicking game has been a mess the last few years and they've left a lot of points on the field because of it, so maybe it's time the Bengals started taking the kicker position more seriously. In truth, they likely won't bring in any big name veteran free agent to fill the position, but they really ought to.The Bengals kicking situation has grown into a bit of a concern here at Cincy Jungle, especially because of Paul, who banged the drum for the Bengals to draft Nebraska's Alex Henery in pointing out that "the position that everybody forgets about, and simultaneously doesn't care about - the kicker position - is another glaring hole the Bengals are facing next year." Well, the team didn't draft Henery (the Eagles did) or anyone else at the position. So what's it going to be then, eh?
The option the team appears set on is the former Buckeye Mike Nugent. Drafted by the Jets in 2005 as the best kicker available, Nugent wasn't very good in New York, missing six kicks his rookie year, three the next, and then seven in 2007. After shuffling around with the Bucs and Cards in 2009, Nugent was picked up by the Bengals last season. After a 2009 that saw franchise great Shayne Graham succumb to unexpected ineffectiveness, Nugent was a nice surprise, bringing a somewhat settling influence to special teams. While his field goal numbers weren't eye-popping (15 for 19 with a long of 54) and he only produced a pedestrian seven touchbacks, he did nail all his extra point attempts and didn't end up on the news for missing a game-winner. And then his kicking knee blew out in week 10, requiring reconstructive surgery. And then things went pear-shaped.
After the two game professional career of Aaron Pettrey ran it's course (I believe he's back working at the Buckeye Room by my house), the team shored up it's kicking game by signing a proven commodity, and by that I mean they signed Clint Stitser, a guy with no professional kick attempts who'd been out of football the previous two years. Stitser actually turned out to be not totally awful, converting seven of eight field goal attempts with a long of 47. But he also missed two PATs and had zero touchbacks. Despite the fact that Stitser was named to the Pro Football Weekly/Professional Football Writers of America’s All-Rookie Team (really for lack of other options), he's not a guy with any long-term future with the team, so he's an option next season but also not really.
Nugent is reportedly off to a good start in his rehab. But he also just had his knee reconstructed. Not his plant knee, but still -- is it worth the risk? In a fan poll, 85% of you voted to give Nugent the job, with only 7% opting for a free agent signing. That's a lot of faith in Nugent. Let's hope it's rewarded. I'm gonna play Doubting Thomas though and angle for the team to sign a veteran. With all the question marks surrounding this team, why leave one in a area that's so forgettably vital?
There are some interesting free agent options the team could pursue. The biggest names are long-time Eagle David Akers, Mr. Clutch Adam Vinatieri from Indy, Minnesota's aptly named Ryan Longwell, and the Broncos' Matt Prater. From that list, I'd throw all my meaningless support behind Prater. Vinatieri is on the downside of his remarkable career and will likely be re-signed by Indy anyway. Longwell is reliable, but he's also 36 and probably better suited to kicking in the dome in Minneapolis. It's not wholly clear what's going on with Akers. Early indications were that he'd be re-signed by the Eagles, though they just drafted Henery so probably not. He'd obviously be a nice signing for the Bengals, but he's likely going to be the biggest name on the market when free agency opens, and he's 36. Then there's the 26-year-old Prater.
In limited opportunities last season, Prater hit 16 of 18 attempts, but with a long of 59. His career conversion percentage is only 79.1, but has been on the upswing the last few seasons (85.7 to 88.9). In his career, Prater has also made 100 of 102 PATs. As important as those stats, the guy is a beast on kickoffs, drilling 20 touchbacks last season (over 35% of his kickoffs) and 28 the season before. Even if you scale down those numbers to a non-Denver stadium, that's still a monster upgrade for a Bengals team that struggled on kickoffs last season (though starting at the 35 will likely mitigate the change in air density). It's true, Prater is coming off an injury-shortened season with a right groin strain, but I'm more comfortable with a healing groin than a reconstructed knee.
Now the team will probably allocate its money elsewhere (if at all) and gamble on Nugent coming back at full strength (or maybe sign a college free agent like Kai Forbath), but in a world where I get to spend an unlimited supply of Bengal dough I'm going after Prater. Nugent is the best option while free agency is in limbo, but if they get the chance the team would be wise to find a player they can trust.