The Cincinnati Bengals enter 2017 with a very clear need to figure out one of the most overlooked positions on any team - kicker. The team released long-time kicker Mike Nugent after Week 14 of last year after he developed a consistent problem with hitting field goals and extra points. As a result, the Bengals brought in Randy Bullock to fill in for the rest of the season, re-signed him this offseason and then signed kicker Jonathan Brown and used a fifth round pick on former Memphis kicker Jake Elliott. Logic would lead you to believe Elliot should win the job easily, but the Bengals insist on holding an open competition this offseason.
“It’s pretty much head-to-head competition. That’s what it is,” Simmons said via Bengals.com of the kicking competition. “Same situations, same environment. You want to compare apples to apples.”
The wild card in this competition is Brown, who previously was a developing soccer player in the USA program. He doesn’t have a lot of experience as an American football kicker, although he is sticking to his guns and treating his chances of winning the competition as seriously as anyone.
“I know they’re probably saying, ‘He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know,’” Brown said. “That’s OK. Let’s see how it plays out. It’s very interesting … because of my leg strength and I’m able to get away with mis-hits sometimes. But I’ve been trying to kick it the same way every time and develop the consistency.”
Despite working with an experienced NFL kicker and one of the best prospects from the recent NFL Draft, the Bengals’ special teams coach seems impressed with Brown’s potential.
“He’s got a fantastic leg. A ton of natural ability,” Simmons said. “He just doesn’t have the experience.”
Even Brown’s competition has been impressed by his talent.
“He’s got a huge leg. Massive,” Elliott said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
However, the incumbent for the Bengals’ job is not lacking in confidence. He will be up to more scrutiny than NFL kickers traditionally deal with in the NFL offseason, but he is holding his head high and maintaining his belief that he can hold off the new players who are coming after his job.
“It’s the first time I’ve been with three kickers,” Bullock said. “We’ve all kicked well and it’s made us better. You know exactly where you stand and I’m pleased where I stand.”
That said, Bullock knows one mistake in the wrong setting could spell the end of his time with the Bengals. The only thing he can do is play the best he can and show he is willing to put in the work.
“I’m relying on my experience, my preparation,” Bullock said. “Everybody watches. Everybody knows. It’s broadcast.”
Elliott’s presence as the favorite to win the kicking competition shouldn’t be a surprise. The Bengals made him the first draft pick among all kickers in the 2017 NFL Draft by selecting him with the No. 153 overall pick in the fifth round. Only two other kickers were selected in the draft, both in the seventh round. Suffice it to say, the Bengals selected Elliott with the expectation he would become the team’s long-term answer at kicker. So far, it seems as though he has lived up to the hype.
“He’s done fine. He’s everything I thought he would be and then some probably,” Simmons said. “He’s very sharp mentally; he’s very into it, very focused. It doesn’t seem too big for him.”
Still, the Bengals refuse to admit Bullock and Brown are fighting an uphill battle against the team’s only drafted kicker during the Marvin Lewis-era.
“No one has an edge. It’s all pretty even,” Simmons said this week. “When you have 80 kicks and you have those percentages, that’s pretty damn close.”
It makes sense for the Bengals to want to foster a competitive environment. Even if Elliott is expected to win the competition, it is good to show him what it means to fight for your job early. The last time the Bengals drafted a kicker and essentially handed him the job without any real competition it was Neil Rackers, who ended up having a very successful NFL career, but performed very poorly with the Bengals. He lasted three seasons in Cincinnati before moving on to the Cardinals and then Texans. In those three seasons, Rackers made 67.03 percent of his field goals and 88.9 of extra points. And that was back when extra points were gimme chip shots.
The last successfully developed kicker the Bengals drafted was Doug Pelfrey, who was with the team from 1993-1999. It’s been nearly 20 years since then, so it makes sense for the Bengals to avoid making big decisions before evaluating all of their options. This summer should be an interesting one for the Bengals kicker position.