Bears general manager Ryan Pace

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Gabriel: Drafting A Kicker Is Risky Business

The Bears are open to drafting a kicker, general manager Ryan Pace says.

Greg Gabriel
February 28, 2019 - 11:29 am

(670 The Score) One of the Bears' biggest needs this offseason is to find a reliable kicker after the four-year, $15-million deal they gave to Cody Parkey last year turned out to be a mistake. 

The Bears will release Parkey at the start of the new league year in March. After that, they'll have several avenues to find his replacement. They can sign a kicker off the street, which they already did once in adding Redford Jones on a future/reserves contract. They can sign a veteran free agent, which is what they did previously in signing Parkey. They could also draft a kicker or sign an undrafted free agent afterward.

Over the years, drafting a kicker has proved to be risky. That's because the job is pressure-packed, and some kickers straight out of college don't have the mental toughness to overcome the challenge initially. It can lead to talented kickers failing in their first opportunity in the NFL, even though they have the skills to be successful in time. Because teams only carry one kicker on their 53-man roster, there's no way to ease them along in their development curve. They have to perform in game action.

A recent example of a kicker who busted was Robert Aguayo, whom the Buccaneers selected late in the second round of the 2016 draft. Aguayo had been one of the most accurate kickers in NCAA history, but he failed with the Bucs, missing nine field goals in 2016. Several other teams, including the Bears, gave him another chance in the ensuing years, but he didn't earn a job.

Three other kickers who went undrafted in 2016 and then were signed are currently kicking in the NFL: the Ravens' Will Lutz, the Texans' Ka’imi Fairbairn and the Giants' Aldrick Rosas, who was originally signed by Tennessee and cut during camp before landing with New York in 2017.

Bears' new challenge: Sustain success

Pressure isn’t the only reason that successful college kickers can fail in the NFL. Another reason is a basic one: the ball.

In college, kickers use one ball for placements and another for kickoffs. After each sequence, the ball is retrieved and protected. The kicker uses the same balls every game, and they're usually older, smoother and rather beat up. Some may be a tad overinflated or a tad underinflated, depending on the kicker's preference.

In the NFL, the kicker doesn't have any control over the balls. There are brand-new balls for each game that are hard. They haven't been scuffed up, are inflated to a certain threshold and are checked by officials before each game. 

In essence, it's more comfortable for a kicker to boot a college ball than an NFL ball, and the college ball usually travels a bit farther than a hard NFL ball.

When kickers work out at the combine, we seldom see them have much success. It's a pressure-packed situation -- a job interview -- in which they're using brand-new hard NFL balls. Good kickers can have bad showings, sometimes to the amusement of veteran NFL talent evaluators.

When scouting kickers, many teams rely on their special teams coaches to do the primary evaluation. Those coaches will often attend kicking camps and hold private workouts with the kickers they deem to be the best prospects. 

There are a few agents who specialize in representing kickers, and they have close relationships with the special teams coaches, making it even more logical for them to be the primary evaluators for a club.

Some of the best kickers in the league weren't drafted out of college. And because there are so few really good kickers, the ones who fail initially don't give up hope of finding success in their second or third chance.

Former Bears and current 49ers kicker Robbie Gould is a great example of that. He signed with the Patriots after going undrafted. Though he kicked well in New England's camp, he didn't make the team. What he did have was tape of his kicks there, which made its way to the Bears, for whom I worked at the time. When we needed a kicker early in the 2005 season, we brought Gould in for a workout and signed him.

Fourteen years later, he's still one of the best kickers in the NFL. 

You can find stories similar to Gould's throughout the league. Eagles kicker Jake Elliott was selected in the fifth round of the Bengals in the 2017 draft but was cut during training camp. Philadelphia then picked him up, and he's done a fine job in the past two seasons, making 83.9 percent of his field goals. 

LSU's Cole Tracy is generally regarded as the best kicking prospect in this draft class. He was 29-of-33 on field goals in 2018 and hit all 42 of his extra-point attempts. The concern with him is he only kicked at the major college level for one season, having previously played at Division-II Assumption College. He was productive there as well but in a far less pressure-packed environment.

Oklahoma's Austin Seibert is also highly rated, though he made just one field goal beyond 50 yards in his four-year college career.

Tracy may be the only kicker drafted, and I doubt he will go before the sixth round. I'm of the belief that selecting a kicker before the sixth round is a mistake, because so many fail in their original camp.

With the Bears only having five picks at this time, I don’t see them selecting a kicker before the seventh round, if at all. Their chances of landing a good kicker on his second go-around or an undrafted free agent are just as good, if not better, than drafting one.

Greg Gabriel is a former NFL talent evaluator who's an on-air contributor for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @greggabe.