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Can the Bengals continue to kick the kicker position down the road?

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Is it time for the Bengals to seek an upgrade at kicker? If so, to whom should they turn?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

During the 2015 season, Bengals kicker Mike Nugent only made 82.1% of his field goal attempts, which ranked him as the 23rd most accurate kicker in the NFL.

While this percentage was not good, it was actually up from his dismal 78.8% rate in 2014. Over the past four seasons, Nugent’s field goal rate is only 81.8%, and during that span he has failed to finish better than 20th in field goal accuracy, ranking anywhere from 20th to 27th since 2012.

With Nugent routinely ranking in the bottom third of NFL kickers, it would seem to reason that the kicker position is upgradable. Yet, the Bengals tend to be very loyal to their kickers, and are not prone to give them the boot. Consider that since 1981 when Ronald Reagan began his first term as president, Pac-Man was the coolest thing in video games, and something called MTV was debuting on television, the Bengals have only used FIVE different opening day kickers: Jim Breech, Doug Pelfrey, Neil Rackers, Shayne Graham, and Mike Nugent.

With such long-tenured kickers, one might be tempted to think that the Bengals roster is a perennial collection of All-Pro and Pro-Bowl kickers. But the truth is quite different.

After Breech’s 13 year run from 1981 to 1992, the Bengals rolled out Doug Pelfrey. Despite a mediocre 77% mark for accuracy as a Bengal, they retained his services for seven seasons. At the beginning of the new millennium, the Bengals moved on from Pelfrey, and brought us Neil Rackers. Despite a dreadful 65.7% career average, it still took them three years before they decided they’d had enough. Rackers was replaced by Shayne Graham, who kicked for seven seasons with a solid 86.8% mark as a Bengal. But short kickoffs, key misses, and going through his worst season as a Bengal in 2009 brought change to the position with the addition of Mike Nugent. After six seasons with the Bengals, Nugent has made 82.2% of his field goals.

Name Tenure Years FG%
Jim Breech 13 years 1981-1992 71.9%
Doug Pelfrey 7 years 1993-1999 77.0%
Neil Rackers 3 years 2000-2002 65.7%
Shayne Graham 7 years 2003-2009 86.8%
Mike Nugent 6 years 2010-2015 82.2%

Another interesting statistic is that three times in Graham’s 112 game career as a Bengal, did his missed kicks account for the scoring difference in a game the Bengals lost or tied. Whereas this has happened five times in Nugent’s 96 game career in orange and black.

The change from Graham to Nugent seems to be something of a downgrade, with Nugent’s lower accuracy, and more occurrences of missed kicks directly leading to games not won. Notwithstanding, the Bengals have stayed firm with Nugent. But should they going foward? Is it time to get an upgrade at the position? If the answer is yes, what options are available?

Unrestricted Free Agents

There are currently nine players who are unrestricted free agents as kickers who are not very old, and who are as good as, or better, than Mike Nugent.

2013 2014 2015 3-yr avg
Adam Vinatieri 87.5% 96.8% 92.6% 92.3%
Josh Brown 88.5% 92.3% 93.8% 91.5%
Nick Novak 91.9% 84.6% 85.7% 87.4%
Justin Tucker 92.7% 85.3% 82.5% 86.8%
Mason Crosby 89.2% 81.8% 85.7% 85.6%
Randy Bullock 74.3% 85.7% 82.6% 80.9%
Mike Nugent 81.8% 78.8% 82.1% 80.9%
Greg Zuerlein 92.9% 80.0% 66.7% 79.9%
Kai Forbath 81.8% 88.9% 66.7% 79.1%

Looking at the list of unrestricted free agents, there are five kickers who have been substantially better over the last three years: Vinatieri, Brown, Novak, Tucker, and Crosby. All of them have had better years than Nugent in each of the past three seasons. If they're not resigned before hitting free agency, it would seem that signing one of them would be an upgrade over Nugent.

If the Bengals don’t want to spend the money on a kicker to replace Nugent, they could pursue a kicker in the next tier. The next group of kickers are comparable to Nugent, and might provide a cost savings: Bullock, Zuerlein, and Forbath. Signing one of them would likely be change for the sake of change, which seems to go against the team’s nature.

If the Bengals think the good kickers are too pricey, and don’t want to create change just to make a change, the next option is looking at the NFL prospects at kickers who will be available in the 2016 NFL draft.

College Kickers in the 2016 NFL Draft

Roberto Aguayo, Florida St
Ka'imi Fairbairn, UCLA
Ross Martin, Duke
Marshall Morgan, Georgia

While there are many more kickers available, this group of four are generally considered the top four, and likely the only ones who could possibly be drafted. Augayo and Fairbairn headline the group. Aguayo was an All American in 2014, and Fairbairn earned the award in 2015. For what it’s worth, Nugent, a former third round pick by the Jets, was a two time All-American kicker. So there is no guarantee that being elite in college will translate to being elite in the NFL.

Aguayo was an insane 198 for 198 on extra point attempts in his three year career for Florida State. His field goal accuracy was good, but dropped from 96% to 90% to 81% each season. Thanks to his ridiculous number of career extra points made, boosted by 94 of them his freshman year, he finished his career with the NCAA record for best accuracy in all kicks, going 267 for 276 for a 96.7% total accuracy.

Fairbairn struggled a little in his first two years, but kicked better as a junior and senior, hitting 83% of his field goal attempts, and 94 of 95 extra points.

Martin was perfect on his extra point attempts at Duke, hitting all 196 attempts over four years. Outside of a rough sophomore season, he was consistent in his other three seasons, converting about 87% to 91% of his field goal attempts.

Morgan had a great sophomore year by nailing 92% of his field goals, and all 47 extra points. But in his other three seasons, he only connected on 70% of his field goal attempts, and missed five cumulative extra points.