One of the biggest questions for the Bengals coming into the offseason is the kicking situation. Randy Bullock, who took over from a struggling Mike Nugent in 2016, was re-signed a few weeks ago but Marvin Lewis said he wants to hold an open competition for the job. Darrin Simmons, the Bengals’ special teams coordinator, also said he favors veterans over rookies because of their experience, so it’d be hard to envision somebody coming out of college and getting the job. But the team also has 11 draft choices in the spring and could use one on a kicker.
Is Simmons right to be wary of rookie kickers? Since he arrived in Cincinnati in 2003 the team has only employed two on the 53-man roster, both in 2010: Aaron Pettrey out of Ohio State (2 games played) and Clint Stitser of Fresno State (5 games played), when Nugent went down with a season-ending injury. Pettrey only attempted four field goals and missed two, including one from less than 30 yards out. Stitser fared a bit better, connecting on seven of his eight tries, but missing two extra point attempts. When Nugent got injured again in 2012 the team went with a veteran in Josh Brown, as they did last season when Nugent’s struggles proved to be just too much for the Bengals to handle.
The last kicker the Bengals drafted was Travis Dorsch in the fourth round in 2002, just two years after selecting Neil Rackers in the sixth round. Dorsch only played one game for Cincy and didn’t attempt a field goal, but Rackers was ineffective for three seasons before moving onto Arizona, where he became a much successful kicker and was named first team All-Pro and the Pro Bowl in 2005.
Overall, 27 kickers have been drafted into the NFL since Simmons arrived in Cincinnati in 2003, including Bullock in the fifth-round in 2012 by Houston. Most were day three picks, but some, like Roberto Aguayo in 2016, have actually gone as early as the second round. Nugent was also a second-round pick by the Jets in 2005.
According to Pro-FootballReference.com up to 52 rookie kickers have attempted at least one field goal in the regular season since 2003, including Bullock in his second year in Houston, as he was injured for his entire first year with the Texans. The best year for rookie kickers year was 2015, as eight of them made their debuts, while in 2006 only Stephen Gostkowski tried one field goal as a rookie. The success of rookie kickers early on typically isn’t great, but overall, rookie kickers have improved up until 2016, when Aguayo helped sink the numbers due to a rough start to the year.
NFL kickers in their rookie year
In terms of success, 2011 and 2012 were outstanding, with effectiveness of 86.15% and 87.5% respectively. In those years guys like Dan Bailey and Justin Tucker entered the league. Since 2008, only in 2010 - when the pair of Bengals kickers were the league’s only rookie kickers, 2013 and this past year, the rookie field goal percentage has been less than 80 percent. There have been a few rookies who converted more than 90 percent of their tries, like Chris Boswell in 2015, Blair Walsh, Kai Forbath and Tucker in 2012 and Garrett Hartley in 2008. I’ve included every single attempt made by rookies, but the numbers could look much more polished if we account only for the regulars and not short-term injury replacements.
Before 2008, rookies were regularly achieving less than 80 percent of their field goals, but the young guys starting improving after players like Dan Carpenter, Ryan Succop and Garrett Hartley arrived in the league. Nowadays, it is strange for a rookie placekicker not to make at least 80 percent of their field goals. 24 NFL kickers better than that mark last year. Only Aguayo, Bullock and Caleb Sturgis failed to make that mark as rookies in recent years, and Brandon McManus converted 9 of his 13 attempts in 2014, but he had limited opportunities once the Broncos signed Connor Barth and was moved to a kickoff specialist role.
With the extra point moved further back and more and more teams attempting longer field goals, kickers have become increasingly tougher. The Bengals might be satisfied addressing their issues at the position with a recycled veteran, just like they did when they first signed Nugent, Brown and Bullock. But, the numbers don’t show that rookie kickers are worse than veterans.
The Bengals have 11 picks in the upcoming draft and one could go to a specialist. When drafting a kicker, there is no guarantee of success, but an already-circulated veteran also can’t guarantee results.
Maybe Simmons is still thinking of Pettrey and that’s why he doesn’t trust rookies, but there is no clear evidence that rookies fold under pressure more than other NFL kickers. It’s hard to quantify the mental factor at the position, one of the most mentally taxing positions in the sport, but the numbers say when a kicker is talented, as Tucker, Bailey and many others are, professional experience is not a must to be successful in the NFL.
You need experience to gain experience, so let’s hope the Bengals are true to what they’ve expressed and make the kicker job an open competition where the best player wins the job in 2017. And, that competition should include a high-potential rookie from this year’s pool of prospects.