Swap market: Place-kickers face constant change
Constant change. Lack of job security. Such is life for NFL place-kickers, good and bad, writes Len Pasquarelli.
In his first three years in Kansas City, Tynes -- a native of Scotland who survived tours in the CFL and NFL Europe before getting a shot in the NFL -- converted 78.2 percent of his attempts and averaged 113.7 points. And for those efforts, he was traded to the Giants in May for a conditional seventh-round draft pick. That move came a month after the Chiefs invested a fifth-round choice on UCLA's Justin Medlock.
So, how's that whole revolving kicker thing going?
Well, on Monday, the Chiefs auditioned six free-agent kickers as potential replacements for Medlock, whose inconsistency in training camp and preseason was chronicled in the HBO series "Hard Knocks." That same day, the Giants took a long look at Dave Rayner, who produced 109 points for the Packers in 2006 but was beaten out in training camp by rookie Mason Crosby, a sixth-round choice.
The Chiefs weren't the only team looking at kickers; in fact, this week there were a dozen auditions around the league. Not surprising, a lot of incumbent place-kicking specialists are looking over their shoulders. Even veteran kickers acknowledge that it's not easy to keep your eye squarely on the ball when your head is on a swivel. After all, the next wide right can earn a guy his walking papers.
"It's a position where, if you've got a job, sometimes you still don't want to unpack your bags," said veteran kicker Olindo Mare, traded to the Saints this spring after spending his first 10 seasons with the Dolphins. "And if you're out of work, you always want to keep a bag packed with your cleats and workout stuff ready to go, because you never know when a team is going to call and want you to come [for an audition]. It's certainly not the most secure livelihood, you know?"
In the past 10 years, nearly 25 percent of all regular-season NFL contests have been determined by three points or less, the margin of a field goal. You'd think such a notable statistic would force clubs to seek security at the kicker position. But eight franchises, one-quarter of the league, will have new kickers for 2007, with more changes expected during the season. As the workouts this week reflected, several kickers are on shaky ground even before they attempt their first field goals of the regular season.
Job security? Forget it. Just nine kickers have been with their current teams for more than five seasons. For a job in which one of the primary barometers is length, it's ironic that longevity is anything but a strong suit.
Of the 32 projected starting kickers this season, just 11 are with their original franchises. Five of those 11 are still in the honeymoon phase (two seasons or less) with their teams.
"Sometimes, you've got to earn your stripes before you earn your first job," said the Colts' Adam Vinatieri, who started his career in NFL Europe before signing with the Patriots in 1996. "And then even after you get a job, it doesn't mean you've got security. The old saying about how you're only as good as your last kick? Well, I don't know if that's totally true. But it's kind of a profession for renters. Especially for the young guys, well, you don't want to get locked into a mortgage because you just don't know. You could lose your job on a whim, and sometimes when you don't expect it. You don't have the luxury of relaxing very much."
Case in point: Five-year veteran Billy Cundiff, a one-time solid kicker in Dallas who had floundered during recent seasons, seemed to have resuscitated his career this summer with the Falcons. He converted all but one of his field goal tries and led Atlanta in preseason scoring with 23 points, apparently locking up the job. Right?
Wrong. Just days before the preseason finale, Atlanta signed Matt Prater, cut from three different training camps. Prater made two of three field goal attempts in the final preseason game, was deemed by the Falcons' staff to have a markedly stronger leg than Cundiff, and was awarded the job despite never having kicked in a regular-season game.
So now Cundiff becomes part of the kicker subspecies. He joins the caravan of available players on the "ready lists" of teams around the league, a phone call away for any club unhappy with its current kicker and wanting to bring in a group of guys for auditions.
"It's weird, because you get to be a little fraternity," said long-time kicker Todd Peterson, who tried out for several teams last year after leaving the game following the 2005 season. "You go somewhere for a workout, look around, and there are three or four other guys [auditioning], as well. And you might go to work out for some other team a week or so later, and the same guys are there, too. You kind of pull for each other, even though you're all after the same job. But, yeah, it's like a traveling road show or something."
Veteran agent Paul Sheehy, who has counted many kickers among his clientele during his 20 years of representing NFL players, calls the band of unemployed kickers "the loop." Right now, the group consists of guys like Rayner, long-time veteran John Carney, Josh Huston (in camp with the Giants), Conner Hughes (Pittsburgh), Kevin Lovell (St. Louis), Nick Novak (Chicago), and Shane Andrus (Indianapolis).
During the 2007 preseason, Lovell, Hughes, Huston, Andrus, Rayner and Novak combined to convert all but one of their 18 field goal attempts. Lovell nailed all five field goal tries. But he wasn't about to oust 13-year Rams veteran Jeff Wilkins, one of the few kickers in the league with excellent security. And so now Lovell, who will probably kick in the league someday, keeps his cleats packed in case the phone rings.
"One thing you have to remind your [unemployed kickers] of is that they've got a singular job," said Sheehy, who lined up 17 different auditions for one client over a period of several years. "It's not like they're competing for one of maybe five or six linebacker spots on some roster. There's one job. Now all these guys have sort of a 'I'm better than the guy that I'm watching on TV' mentality. They have to feel that way. It's the nature of what they do and the confidence it takes to do it.
"But the thing is, as often as teams switch kickers, there really has to be something beyond the normal little bit of fear that forces a franchise to make a change. A team has to get to the point where it basically says, 'That's it, we're done with this guy.' So you sometimes have to sit back and wait for a team to make that determination, then have your guys ready when the opportunities present themselves. But, sure, you've also got kickers out there converting 78 percent of their kicks and getting [released]. That's when teams call the guys who happen to be in 'the loop' at that point. There are always more guys in 'the loop' than there are jobs to be had."
One out-of-work kicker who inexplicably hasn't made his way into "the loop" is Mike Vanderjagt. The former Indianapolis and Dallas placement specialist is still the most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history, with a conversion rate of 86.5 percent over nine years. Vanderjagt owns the league record for most consecutive field goal conversions (42), has eight 100-point seasons, and was on pace for a ninth when then-Dallas coach Bill Parcells released him after 10 games in 2006.
Vanderjagt, 37, had a few nibbles from NFL teams this spring, and agent Gil Scott continues to make calls for his client, but no club is biting. It's hard to believe that, in a job with such a high turnover rate, no general manager or coach has turned over his Rolodex to Vanderjagt's number and offered him a workout.
"It's like [Vanderjagt] suddenly fell off the face of the Earth," said one veteran kicker who asked to remain anonymous. "I mean, I know he had that run-in with [Peyton] Manning a few years ago, and from what I understand, he could be a royal pain in some ways. But the guy was a hell of a kicker. I'll tell you this much: If you ever doubted just how [tenuous] this job is, Vanderjagt is a reminder of how fickle things are for kickers."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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