Nick Novak can vividly recall a time when he was fresh out of college, bouncing between four NFL teams and one in NFL Europe in a year while trying to solidify himself as rookie kicker. In those days, all the way back in 2005, there seemed to be an emphasis on experience and a track record at this key position, above all else, with it being quite difficult for young kickers to break through. Now Novak wonders if the paradigm has shifted dramatically.
These days Novak, 37, is sending out feelers to as many teams as possible, just hoping for an invite to a camp after the AAF folded absurdly. He set team records for the Texans as recently as 2016 – his foot supplementing a suspect offense and complimenting a superior defense in shepherding Houston to a division title that season, and was performing well for the Chargers prior to getting injured in 2017. Now, he finds himself on the outside looking in as Organized Team Activities wind down around the league – along with other proven kicking commodities like Matt Bryant (44), Phil Dawson (44), Nick Folk (34), Blair Walsh (29) and Mike Nugent (37), perhaps among the first casualties of a growing development in league circles.
If the season were to start today, 11 clubs would be employing a kicker aged 25 or younger – used to be it took until that age to cement a kicking job – and 12 teams would be going with a kicker who has been active for 32 games or less (less than the equivalent of two seasons). Five teams would likely be going with a kicker with 16 games of experience or less, and 13 kickers would be making $1M or less. With the success – or relative success – of young kickers out of nowhere in recent years (Josh Elliott, Will Lutz, Harrison Butker, Daniel Carlson, Aldrick Rosas to name a few) teams may be moving to young, uber-cheap kickers with a booming leg and limited NFL experience.
“It does seem like it used to take a lot longer for the younger guys to really get a chance to establish themselves,” Novak said. “It used to be you missed one or two kicks in camp as a rookie and you were gone in a nanosecond, and now some teams seem to be only bringing in young guys. I remember in my rookie year I had been with four teams and when I got released from Chicago in training camp Bill Parcells brought me in to Dallas and I made a 47-yarder and I missed a 40-yarder.
“And the next morning Parcells said, ‘You’d be our kicker if you had made both of them.’ And then a few weeks later the Redskins picked me up and I hit a game-winner against the Cowboys; I didn’t get to say anything to him afterwards, but all of those experience toughen you up. And I really do believe that now the pendulum has swung the other way towards younger guys and giving them much more of an opportunity.”
The NFL tends to go in cycles, and even with the kickoff being a somewhat lost art and its import being phased out by new special teams rules, the hunt is on for powerful, 65-yard legs. It’s a copycat league if nothing else, and playoff teams like the Eagles (Elliott), Saints (Lutz), Chiefs (Butker) have thrived with previously unknown kickers – in many cases brought in off the street after veterans got hurt – with some in the industry believing it portends more of the same spreading further. The Bears, for instance, recently held a nine-man kick-off virtually devoid of any household names taking part, raising eyebrows in the kicking community, and kicking expert/consultant Gary Zauner, a longtime former NFL special teams coach who clubs frequently contact to suggest free-agent kickers to sign, believes Novak is on to something, too.
“When I worked for Denny Green (as special teams coach of the Vikings from 1994-2001),” Zauner said, “I told him, ‘I don’t give a (crap) about anything else – when we get to the playoffs I want a guy who has been there before.’ But now what I hear from teams more and more is – ‘We’re going to bring in a bunch of young guys, Gary. That’s who we want to look at.’ … I hear from a lot of people who are not really doing anything with the veteran kickers who are out there now, and I’m not entirely sure why. It seems to be something with the salaries or the salary cap. But everyone wants to try to find a cheap guy with a big leg.”
Zauner believes that the growth of kicking camps and prep kicking rating services has placed an over-emphasis on leg strength that has permeated the college game. And that, naturally, spreads to the pro game. He believes many special teams coaches in the collegiate ranks don’t really know how to coach place kickers, specifically, prizing distance above all else. Since the Ravens struck gold with Justin Tucker it’s sent other teams on often quixotic journeys through the draft and college free agency trying to find one of their own. It’s worked in a few spots, and last year alone young or young-ish journeymen like Zane Gonzalez (Arizona), Jason Sanders (Miami), Greg Joseph (Cleveland), Michael Badgley (Los Angeles Chargers), Carlson (Oakland), Rosas (New York Giants), Giorgio Tavecchio (Atlanta) and Brett Maher (Dallas) made strides to solidify themselves in new locales.
“Everyone wants that next Justin Tucker,” said one agent who represented several kickers over the years. “Good luck finding him. There aren’t a lot of those guys walking around. That’s a diamond in the rough but the special teams coaches know if they find a guy like that it bodes well for their job security, and then you see kickers getting drafted more now, too, and when that happens you know the GM and front office want him on the team even if the special teams coach would rather have a veteran.
“With kickers you can be All-Pro one year and then out of the league. It’s crazy. And I guess some teams got burned by giving veterans big contracts who didn’t work out. So it’s all about the young guys with a powerful leg now. A lot of seasoned vets can’t even get a look to get into a camp.”
Of course, no one should be surprised that NFL teams want to save money whenever possible – even with a ballooning salary cap. And some have pointed to the fallout of guys like Chris Boswell (Steelers) and Dan Bailey (Cowboys) following signing big deals as part of the allure of getting a youngster on a rookie contract, too.
One could make the case that the Bucs, Bears, Dolphins, Cardinals, Browns, Chargers, Raiders and Vikings might all have to make more transactions at the kicker position pending the development of the talent currently on hand (Cleveland and Tampa, again, drafted kickers). Then guys like Novak, Folk and Bryant might become more in demand in-season then for teams that still fancy themselves playoff contenders.
“There are a lot of veteran guys who could easily go into camp and compete against a young incumbent,” Novak said, “but lot of guys won’t get to kick or have that opportunity this entire offseason. And now you’re hoping if a tryout does come up during the season that you get the call. But even then the trend is also going to where they bring in one ‘old’ guy, and a bunch of young guys who were already kicking all spring for a team and also in training camp.”
If more young kickers manage to stick in 2019, then expect them to continue to be all the rage. The plight of the aged kicker might become akin to what older running backs experience.
“You may be on to something at the very start,” said one agent who represents a bevy of kickers and specialists. “I haven’t run all the numbers yet, and it may not be a true trend, but I think you have identified a pattern that might be turning into a trend. Anecdotally, it seems headed that way. It’s also a function of where teams think they really are – how close they are to winning – and if we can get away with a cheaper guy with a bigger leg as they build then they’d prefer to go that way. A lot of teams are looking at that as possibly the way to go. Not everybody, yet, but it’s starting to look like, ‘Okay let’s try this and see if it will work.'”
Keep an eye on Tampa this summer. They drafted another kicker – Matt Gay – a few years after blowing it with Roberto Aguayo in the second-round. Gay has a massive leg – but can struggle with accuracy – and the Bucs have retained Cairo Santos, a six-year veteran, as well, who has been true inside of 45 but lacks Gay’s power.
“That may be the one to watch,” the agent said. “Are they good with a veteran who is solid from 50 in? Or do they want to be more aggressive than that? That might be a microcosm of the market. That’s the argument right there.”
Novak, and his peers, will be watching every so closely.