Kickers Are Prospects, Too: The Impossible Task of Scouting Kickers and Punters

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterApril 9, 2015

AP Images

This is the most important article about drafting kickers and punters that you will read this year.

Granted, it is probably also the only article about drafting kickers and punters that you will read this year. And it may be the only article about drafting kickers and punters that you will ever read. 

Kickers and punters are prospects, too. The next Justin Tucker, Stephen Gostkowski, Andy Lee or Jon Ryan—a specialist who makes multiple Pro Bowls or helps decide a Super Bowl—could be lurking in this year's draft class. You would never know it, because draft coverage for specialists is sparse, incomplete or flat-out inaccurate.

It's not just that specialists aren't as interesting as position players; a kicker is more interesting than the typical lineman, particularly in a tie game late in the fourth quarter. It's not just that specialists are rarely drafted nowadays; in the world of seven-round mock drafts (updated daily), a handful of specialists should garner at least a little attention, even if only three to five kickers and punters are selected toward the end of a typical draft.

We don't talk about top kicking and punting prospects because we have no idea who they are. And it's rarely worth our time and energy to find out. The typical specialist's path to the NFL is, well, a little bit specialized. There is a lot more to evaluating a potential NFL kicker or punter than meets the eye.

Kicker, punter, whatever

Here's an anecdote that will give you a firm idea about the quality and quantity of draft coverage for kickers and punters.

Justin Manton is one of the top specialist prospects in the country. According to CBSSports.com, Manton is the top kicking prospect in the draft, a projected fifth- or sixth-round pick. Manton is tied for second among kickers on NFL.com's draft site, with a 4.8 rating. Scott Wright's Draft Countdown ranks Manton first overall among kickers. Walter Football also ranks Manton first among kickers. It's as much consensus as you are going to find: Manton is a top place-kicking prospect.

Justin Manton is a punter, folks.

Oh, Manton kicked and punted for Louisiana-Monroe and handled both chores at the Senior Bowl as well. He has not completely given up on practicing his field goals, and many draft sites do acknowledge that he was a double-duty player. But he has chosen to specialize in punting and kickoffs.

"I think that's where I'm going to be best at the next level," Manton said. "You can't really do all of them; nobody does that. I've been telling people that I am confident in all three, but I am looking more into punting and kicking off as my ways to make a roster."

COLLEGE STATION, TX - NOVEMBER 01:  Justin Manton #17 of the Louisiana Monroe Warhawks connects for a 23 yard  field goal opiut of the hold of Brayle Brown #12 at Kyle Field on November 1, 2014 in College Station, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

Clearly, from the rankings above, Manton has not been telling enough people.

This sort of thing does not happen at other positions. You won't find two major outlets ranking a running back in the top five, another leaving him off the top 40 and several others ranking him at wide receiver. This kind of confusion is strictly a kicker/punter phenomenon.

Manton is working with former Chargers Darren Bennett on punts and John Carney on kickoffs, conditioning and some field goals. Carney runs a kicking academy, so he has a small crop of prospects he is working with, including Michigan kicker Matt Wile, who really is a kicker.

Former Buccaneers kicker Michael Husted also runs a kicking academy, and one of his top pupils is Michigan State punter Mike Sadler. Both Carney and Husted work with lesser-known specialists, including NFL veterans like Zoltan Mesko, who is training with Husted as he attempts a comeback. They also work with high school kickers and punters seeking NCAA scholarships. Carney's and Husted's lists of top draft prospects bear little resemblance to the lists you will see from most scouting services. Yes, the kicking instructors are promoting their prized pupils, but at least they have laid eyes on all the specialists they list.

EAST LANSING, MI - AUGUST 29:  Mike Sadler #3 of the Michigan State Spartans punts the ball against the Jacksonville State Gamecocks during the second half at Spartan Stadium on August 29, 2014 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Ima
Duane Burleson/Getty Images

When a veteran kicker or special teams coach watches a specialist, he is likely to see something that seasoned NFL scouts, let alone my colleagues and I, who scribble notes at Senior Bowl practices, are liable to miss. Husted's evaluation of Sadler, for example, goes beyond Sadler's prowess as a directional punter.

"He's a really good holder, as well. He can hold for righties and lefties, which is important," Husted said. "It's hard to find a guy who can hold for the lefties."

There are not many left-footed kickers in the NFL these days. Still, you don't read much about a punter's kick-holding capability in scouting reports. That's partially because you don't read many punter scouting reports. And as Manton's story illustrates, some of the punter scouting reports you do read actually turn out to be about kickers.

But Husted's quick evaluation of Sadler is also a reminder of how important the tiny details are when it comes to specialist evaluation. For kickers and punters, it often takes another kicker or punter, or a veteran special teams coach, to even know what to look for, let alone what it should look like.

Par for the course

Watching film of kickers and punters is not like scouting position players. It is more like watching the Masters.

"Kicking is like playing golf," longtime NFL special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff said. "You want to have as few moving parts as possible."

DORAL, FL - MARCH 06:  Jim Furyk of the United States watches his tee shot on the fourteenth hole during the second round of the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral Blue Monster Course on March 6, 2015 in Doral, Florida.
David Cannon/Getty Images

Husted also compared a kicker's mechanics to a golf swing. When Carney speaks of the differences in kicking styles, he uses the PGA Tour as an analogy: unorthodox-but-successful kickers are like Jim Furyk or Chi Chi Rodriguez. When former NFL special teams coordinator John Bonamego expresses his preference for short place-kickers, he leans on a golf analogy: "It's kind of like club length," said Bonamego, now the head coach at Central Michigan. "It's easier to control your 7-iron swing than it is your driver."

Punters, meanwhile, must have "a lot of clubs in their bag," in Carney's words: the ability to kick directionally or flop approach shots onto the green…er, drop punts inside the 20.

College kickers and punters are often like the big hitters at your local municipal course: powerful and impressive at times, but inconsistent and imprecise when compared to the tour pros. Some bring that "big hitter" approach with them to NFL workouts and training camps.

"They're under the impression that having a big, strong leg is going to wow all the NFL scouts and special teams coaches," Carney said. "They swing for the fences all day long. In the meantime, they sacrifice some shanked kicks and shanked punts, which is not very impressive to an NFL scout or coach."

Kicking coaches like Carney and Husted teach young specialists to stress consistency over power, but there is more to going from college to the NFL than tightening the screws on the delivery. College kickers and punters must often learn new techniques to adjust to the NFL's special teams rules.

Take punting. At the college level, all 10 teammates can theoretically race downfield to cover the punt as soon as the ball is snapped. Realistically, three or four blockers remain behind as the punter's "shield," but punt-coverage contingents are far larger in college than the NFL, where only the "gunners" at the ends of the line can release before the ball is punted.

Huge punt-coverage squads make returns so difficult that college punters don't have to worry about directions, hang time or subtlety.

"He just takes a couple of steps and drives it," Westhoff said. "Then the return man gets the ball, and they are all standing right there waiting to tackle him."

Westhoff calls college and pro punting "apples and oranges," making it hard for a non-expert to see a college punter and project him to the NFL. "You have to retool them. They are still good punters; you just have to refine the technique and get them from the one thing they did well to something different."

Even when a college punter appears to ordinary fans (and armchair scouts) to do the right thing, he may have done something wrong.

"A 4.2-second hang-time punt that travels 50 yards might look like a good punt to a casual fan," Bonamego said. "But to an NFL coach, that's a line-drive punt that has a chance to get returned."

Kickoff styles are also different in the NFL and college. College touchbacks come out to the 25-yard line, so college kickers are more likely to stress hang time instead of booting the ball through the back of the end zone.

"They want that ball high, so the returner catches it maybe two yards deep and hesitates: Should he take a knee, or should he take it out?" Husted said.

Driving the ball deeper requires an adjustment to the swing. "If you want them to drive the ball more, you have to adjust your plant foot," Husted said. "That way, they get that ball driven back in the end zone, not popping up so high like they are used to doing. It's all about leverage with the ball."

The adjustments specialists must make are not that extreme. Think of them as the adjustments a shotgun-spread quarterback must make. But everyone from pro scouts to experienced football writers to serious fans understands that shotgun-spread quarterbacks must adjust to the NFL. The changes specialists must make are only noticed and understood by special teams experts.

Important assets

Kyle Brindza is still considered a top kicking prospect despite a disappointing senior season.
Kyle Brindza is still considered a top kicking prospect despite a disappointing senior season.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

There are not many differences between a college field goal and an NFL field goal: same uprights, same rules, same pressures. But there is not a lot of scouting film of field goals to begin with. Manton attempted just 56 field goals in his college career. Notre Dame's Kyle Brindza, perhaps the top actual place-kicking prospect in the draft, attempted just 81 field goals. A quarterback might attempt more passes in two games than a kicker attempts from the time he is a shaky true freshman to his final attempt as an All-America senior.

That doesn't mean college film is meaningless. "His college film is his most important asset," Westhoff said. "You want to see a guy's record, how he performed at the college level. That's crucial."

A kicker's film can just be difficult to interpret. Westhoff is looking for consistency and precision as much as he is looking for makes, misses and lengths.

"How many steps does he take?" Westhoff asks. "If it's three steps, I don't even want to deal with it. It takes too long. If it's two-and-a-half, with a little jab, I want to time it. If you're late, they'll push the pocket back and they'll tip it. Does he have quirks? Is he twisting too much? Is he inconsistent? Where's his plant foot? Is it in the same place in relation to the ball on clip after clip?"

Bonamego, too, stressed precision when watching game film. But he also looked for signs of elite ability that might not show up on the field-goal cutups. Rookie Eagles kicker Cody Parkey, for example, stood out because of his pure strength on kickoffs. "His field-goal percentage in college was not great," Bonamego said (Parkey was 39-of-53 in his Auburn career). "But the wow factor for Parkey was his kickoffs. The guy had an unmistakable NFL-quality leg."

Special teams coaches also want to see high-pressure kicks. In bad weather or in a tight situation, a kicker's mechanics might lapse. Even a three-inch change in the location of the plant foot, something few non-experts could hope to notice, could be a sign that a kicker will let his team down at the worst possible time.

"That puts your plant foot beyond the ball," Westhoff said. "Now he either has to pull their body there quickly, or push it and fade it just like a golfer would, off to the right."

Some kickers have only a handful of pressure-situation, bad-weather efforts to show an NFL coach or scout. That makes private workouts, tryouts, kicking camps and word of mouth—specialist pipelines that are invisible to much of the football world—critical for kicking and punting prospects.

The academy system

Husted was a high school soccer and baseball player hanging around the local arcade in the 1980s when some cheerleaders suggested he try out for the football team. It was an offer few would refuse. Husted made the football team, and when his coach asked for kicking volunteers, he raised his hand.

10 Nov 1996: Kicker Michael Husted of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicks the ball during a game against the Oakland Raiders at Houlihan''s Stadium in Tampa, Florida. The Buccaneers won the game in overtime, 20-17.
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Relying on some basic sandlot knowledge and his skills from other sports, Husted slipped and fell when he attempted his first soccer-style field goal. He shifted to a straight-line approach and hit his second attempt well. He tried soccer style again and crushed the ball.

"I said 'Coach, how do you want me to kick it?' He said, 'Son, I don't care if you kick it with your [butt]. Just put that thing through," Husted said. "That's the start of my kicking career right there."

Modern specialists get much better training in their craft. Academies like the ones Husted and Carney run have popped up all over the country, educating kickers and punters from high school through the NFL in technique, conditioning and mental approach. That knowledge has seeped down to college and high school coaching. While many high schools still grab a kid from the soccer team and anoint him or her as a kicker or punter, there are many resources to help young kickers and punters get better. Westhoff and Bonamego agree that kickers arrive in the NFL much more prepared now than they did in the past, thanks to the multitude of camps and training programs available to them.

The academies do more than train specialists. Husted's school tracks the practice statistics of its specialists across hundreds of kicks and punts, adjusting for weather and conditions, and makes the data available for interested teams. Husted's academy also gives attendees tape of dozens of their kicks and punts, which they can send to teams or upload to YouTube or the football highlight resource Hudl. Husted calls his statistical service "Moneyball for kickers." Coaches get to see far more kicks and punts than they can see by splicing together every on-field move a specialist made.

Husted's academy even runs its own combines and pro days. Only specialists who performed exceptionally well at the academy's events can attend these combines, which attract NFL special teams coordinators and scouts. A kicker or punter from the hinterlands can work his way through the ranks of a kicking academy and impress an NFL evaluator without necessarily standing out at an NCAA program. It all happens far from the eyes of reporters or even rank-and-file scouts, let alone the typical fan.

Efficient consistency, consistent efficiency

After catching the eye of some coach or special teams coordinator, the specialist must also shine during workouts. Academy training can further help a kicker or punter who is suddenly being watched by someone like Westhoff or Bonamego, whether at a private workout, a regular tryout or a minicamp session after a roster invitation. Special teams coordinators often have final say on who makes the team at kicker and punter. Westhoff said he was never overruled, even when he worked for Don Shula and Jimmy Johnson as a Dolphins coach.

"I would go in and put them through a workout myself," Westhoff said. "I'd want to see his times and his technique. How many steps does he take? What triggers him to go? What does he know about his technique? I would watch him kick, stand right with him."

A kicker or punter who looks impressive when booming 50-yarders on film can suddenly blow it during tryouts or workouts. Carney remembers when he and another rookie kicker tried to unseat Jim Breech as the Bengals kicker in the 1980s.

Cris Collinsworth (right) had a few inches on kicker Jim Breech.
Cris Collinsworth (right) had a few inches on kicker Jim Breech.Kathy Willens/Associated Press/Associated Press

"We were smashing field goals as high and far as we could, thinking that we were pretty impressive to each other," Carney said. "Jim Breech was just hitting little bloopers that went straight down the middle of the goalpost.

"Well, I don't think I saw Jim miss a field goal during that entire training camp."

Carney and the other rookie missed a few. Carney lost the Bengals job. He resurfaced a year later, older and wiser, with the Buccaneers, then spent over a decade with the Chargers.

Carney warns his pupils that tryouts will be full of young specialists hammering 50-yard field goals in an attempt to impress scouts.

"Don't watch those guys, don't follow those guys," Carney advises. "Do your proper warm-up, pay attention to details and what you learned, and prepare to be consistent that day."

It's sound advice. Westhoff said he looked for professionalism during workouts, not thunderous kicks. He and Bonamego both pay attention to the specialists' warm-ups to learn how they approach their craft. Westhoff also wanted to hear specialists explain the details of their technique.

"I like to get the guy to tell me what he does. I don't tell him. I want to hear it and have him take me through it. The more efficient he is, the more he knows it, the better feel I have that he can execute it."

Westhoff also simulated pressure by suddenly moving the ball to a particular yard line and hash mark and telling the specialist to execute a kick. But he knew that his presence usually brought enough pressure; there were no make this 45-yarder or we tow your rental car away moments.

"I always respected what they were doing and the tension they were under," he said. "I wanted them to succeed. But I wasn't going to give it to them."

Handling pressure can obviously be a big deal for a kicker. An unimpressive workout can sabotage a specialist's chances with a team forever. A 320-pound lineman or receiver with 4.4 speed will get second opportunities that a specialist may never see.

"From a coach's perspective, they think: If we bring you into a minicamp, the pressure's going to add up," Husted said. "If you can't get it done at this lowest level, how do you expect to get it done at the highest level?"

Competing against yourself

Manton says he began kicking when he was three years old. He was a kicker and punter in high school, but he was also a pitcher and first baseman in the spring and a shooting guard in the winter. "I never had a day in high school where I just went home after school," he said.

If you still think of specialists as tiny soccer stars imported from South America or Europe, welcome to the 21st century. Kickers and punters are generally homegrown multisport athletes.

"It used to be a connotation," Westhoff said. "You know: 'He's a kicker.' And that created an image: the little guy who swatted a soccer ball around. Not today. That's just not true. They're good athletes, multisport guys."

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Some coaches even prefer multisport athletes at kicker and punter. Bonamego pointed out that Chandler Catanzaro, the Cardinals rookie kicker last year, was a successful tennis player in high school. Success at other sports can translate into the competitiveness and grace under pressure a specialist needs to succeed.

Manton learned to kick and punt from a handful of regional camps in Mississippi and Louisiana, and from Internet tutorials. Coaches at University of Louisiana-Monroe liked what they saw from Manton after they hosted a camp, so they offered him a scholarship before his junior year.

Top specialists don't always attend top programs at power conferences. It's one more reason kicker scouting can seem so haphazard. Any draft evaluator worth his salt keeps track of the goings on at Ohio State or Oregon. But what about Louisiana-Monroe? Or Rensselaer, where Husted's student Andrew Franks boomed kickoffs in obscurity for the mighty Engineers? Cornell's John Wells, a Carney pupil, attempted just five field goals for the Big Red last season. Carney thinks he has an NFL-caliber leg on kickoffs. Experts know how to fine-tune small-school players like these. But there are only so many scouts beating the bushes in upstate New York.

Kicking or punting at a smaller program can have its advantages. A specialist can start for four years at a smaller program instead of getting lost in the shuffle of top recruits at a football factory. And while linemen or receivers can be hard to scout at Rensselaer-Framingham State games because of level-of-competition issues, a 75-yard kickoff is a 75-yard kickoff, whether it lands in front of a thronging student section or a grove of pine trees.

"You are not necessarily competing against the guy lined up across the ball," Husted said. "You're competing against yourself. No matter the level, the uprights are the same; it's the same distance. If you're making your kicks, they're going to see you."

There are downsides to kicking in the boondocks. Snaps and holds are not quite as uniform at the lower levels as they are at the FBS level, and a bad hold can ruin everything. A chance to start early can also backfire. Manton took over as Louisiana-Monroe's kicker after a more experienced specialist was injured at the start of his freshman season. "My freshman year was a big learning experience," Manton said. "I was probably not ready to play. I think of that as a lost year, because I was so physically immature."

Manton weighed just 170 pounds. He kicked off from the 40-yard line in high school, but the NCAA had not yet moved college kickoffs from the 30-yard line up to the 35. He went just 6-of-14 on field goals and dealt with what he called "a mind game" on kickoffs. He was a homesick teenager who suddenly found himself lining up to kick footballs at Florida Atlantic, Texas Christian and Iowa at the start of ULM's brutal nonconference schedule.

"I felt like I would have a bad game, and the next week I had to walk around campus and feel like everybody's looking at me," Manton said. "Family and friends are what got me through."

STATESBORO, GA - NOVEMBER 29:  Kicker Justin Manton #17 of the Louisiana Monroe Warhawks is congratulated by teammate quarterback Brayle Brown after hitting a field goal against the Georgia Southern Eagles during the fourth quarter on November 29, 2014 at
Todd Bennett/Getty Images

Manton's teammates rallied around him. He got stronger and wiser. He averaged 42.4 yards per punt last season, making 20-of-24 field goals and getting positive reviews on kickoffs. He's been able to use his overall athleticism a few times as well, surprising opponents with left-handed fake-punt passes (Manton kicks with his right foot) that he calls "Tim Tebow push passes."

Manton could not afford many top-notch kicking camps in high school or early in his college career. He didn't want to sacrifice baseball for offseason specialist work in high school, and he was too advanced for the small regional camps that he could afford by the time he reached college. Now that he is working with Darren Bennett and Carney, Manton is starting to sound like a professional specialist.

In other words, he is starting to sound like a golfer.

"I've been working on picking out my target, instead of just kicking it down there, having a place to look at," he said. "You're not trying to just absolutely kill the ball. You have to make sure your approach is good and having a good swing every time."

Live with your worst kick

8 Sep 1996:  Kicker John Carney of the San Diego Chargers kicks the ball during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, California.  The Chargers won the game, 27-14. Mandatory Credit: Al Bello  /Allsport
Al Bello/Getty Images

Carney was not invited to the combine in 1987. Five kickers were drafted that year, three in ninth through 11th rounds that no longer exist. Carney was not one of them. Jeff Jaeger (third round) and Greg Davis (ninth) had successful careers. The others quickly disappeared.

There have been 60 kickers and punters drafted since 2001, according to Pro Football Reference's draft finder. Twenty-four of them recorded Approximate Values of less than three. In other words, they may have kicked or punted for a season or two, but they either washed out of the NFL or are close to doing so. It's a list of squandered selections and obscure names, though some of those names topped lists of kicking or punting prospects in magazines a decade ago, like B.J. Sander, Travis Dorsch, Hayden Epstein and John Markham.

Meanwhile, top specialists of the past decade like Justin Tucker, David Akers, Jon Ryan, Steve Weatherford and Dan Carpenter went undrafted and unnoticed during the draft run-up, just as Carney did. Every position has its share of draft busts and undrafted marvels, but at kicker and punter, draft status and NFL success have almost no correlation. Players like Gostkowski and Lee, who are selected in high rounds (for specialists) and go on to substantial careers are extremely rare.

Some successful kickers arrive out of nowhere. Robbie Gould was 16-of-29 on field goals in his final two seasons at Penn State; there is no mystery about why he was not drafted. Matt Bryant worked at a pawn shop and as a personal trainer for several years after the NFL ignored his career at Oregon State and Baylor. If not for the now-defunct NFL Europe, where Bryant earned his second chance, we might be watching Bryant on television beside Rick Harrison and Chumlee instead of with Matt Ryan and the Falcons. Darren Bennett came from Australian rule football, eventually bringing other punters with him.

When even the experts make mistakes, what chance does the editor of a draft magazine have of evaluating a guy who misses nearly half his field goals, has been out of the NFL for two years or starred for the Essendon Bombers?

We've explored many reasons it is so hard to scout a specialist. Their skills are too technical for a layman's eyes. College kicking and punting is different from what specialists are asked to do in the NFL. Kicking academies and private workouts carry more weight for specialists than position players. Many top specialists are lurking at tiny colleges.

There are other issues. The scouts who whisper insights into our ears rarely have specialist expertise; if they spot a kicker or punter who looks OK to them, most report him to the special teams coordinator and go back to scrutinizing linebackers. There's not a lot of money or prestige in drilling down to the depths of specialist scouting; even scouting services that work with the NFL tend to back-burner their attempts to find the top kickers and punters.

"A scouting firm has to get a report out," Husted said. "So they pull up some stats for kickers and finish it real quick. It's like cramming for a test or the SAT: They spent so much on one section, they only have three minutes left—let's get this whole section done."

Our kicker and punter lists inevitably wind up incorrect and incomplete, and specialist scouting is so unique that there is not much we can do about it. Yet specialist scouting is not all that much different than positional scouting once you take out the golf metaphors. Teams need hard-working, well-conditioned, mentally tough kickers and punters. Fundamentals and technique are crucial at all positions. Proper film study exposes strengths and weaknesses. Work ethic and mental discipline separate NFL players from washouts at every position.

But the margin for error at the specialist positions is so low that it raises the stakes on every attempt, from workouts to live games. There are no backup kickers and punters, and only a handful of practice squad openings are available. The ninth-best defensive tackle in a training camp has far more options and opportunities than the second-best specialist.

The high stakes create one last hurdle for specialist scouting. Players at most positions are evaluated based on their upside. Scouts, coaches, writers and fans drool over Jameis Winston's highlights and excuse (or make plans to minimize) his interceptions. A pass-rusher who picks up two sacks in a game gets indulgences for the 25 or 30 times he is easily blocked.

But kickers and punters are judged by their worst kicks. Imagine how running backs would be evaluated if 20-yard runs were considered just part of the job but every fumble was placed under a microscope. That's what kickers and punters face.

Carney has heard the sentiment from many special teams coaches. "What's the worst kick this guy is going to give me? Will it sink our team, or can we live with that?" So the guy with the textbook swing and Zen practice habits is going to win the job. The guy who impressed scouts and reporters with 60-yard kicks? "Those are the kinds of kids who will get a coach fired."

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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