A brief overview of the top three kick and punt returners on Bob McGinn's board heading into the 2017 NFL draft.
Final in a position-by-position series previewing the 2017 NFL draft.
GREEN BAY - It’s hard enough making it in the NFL as a kicker. Ask Roberto Aguayo, the can’t-miss prospect that did miss last season as the second-round selection of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Soon Georgia Tech’s towering Harrison Butker will face his own challenge at one of the few positions in pro football where height is regarded as a distinct disadvantage.
Butker, 6 feet 4 inches and 200 pounds, would become the tallest kicker in the league if he can secure regular employment. Using verified heights rounded to the nearest half inch, the five tallest kickers in 2016 were Denver’s Brandon McManus (6-3½), Seattle’s Stephen Hauschka (6-3), Arizona’s Chandler Catanzaro (6-2½), Tennessee’s Ryan Succop (6-2½) and Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell (6-2).
When Hauschka missed six extra points, the Seahawks let him walk to Buffalo in March. The Cardinals didn’t even tender the erratic Catanzaro, who signed with the Jets.
The average height of the 34 kickers with at least 10 field-goal attempts last season was about 6-0. It’s in line with the three men that have given the Green Bay Packers’ superb kicking for almost 30 years: Chris Jacke (5-11, 200), Ryan Longwell (5-11½, 196) and Mason Crosby (6-1, 200).
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Three special-teams coaches for NFL teams agreed that as a general rule more can go wrong the taller the kicker is.
“Their feet are too big,” said one AFC coach. “A lot of times they catch it on the ground before they hit the ball. Can’t always hit the sweet spot on his foot because he’s wearing like a size-12 shoe. They’ve got more of a windup so the angle of their foot making contact with the ball can be different.
“With short guys, everything’s just so compact.”
Another coach from the AFC said more moving parts means more margin for error.
“There’s more movement,” he said. “(Smaller) kickers can neutralize size and strength by how quickly they move their foot from Point A to Point B.
“You see big guys as punters because you want long levers. You want linear movements as a punter whereas you want centrifugal (around) movements as a kicker. But I think the main reason you see more Jake Elliott’s than Harrison Butker’s is soccer.”
Elliott (5-9, 166), a four-year starter at Memphis, and Arizona State’s Zane Gonzalez (6-0 ½, 202) rank with Butker as the top available kickers. Elliott would be close to challenging Kansas City’s Cairo Santos (5-8 ½, 160) as the NFL’s shortest kicker.
According to the coach, almost all NFL kickers today have soccer backgrounds. Non-goalie soccer players standing 6-4 and above are about as rare as NFL quarterbacks and NBA point guards under 6-0.
“You don’t see big soccer players because quick lateral movement skills are such a big deal,” the AFC coach said.
Joe Nedney (6-5 ½, 225) and Mike Vanderjagt (6-5, 211) probably have been the most successful tall kickers in the NFL over the past two decades.
Nedney made 80.3% for seven teams from 1996-’10; his career began with a four-month stay as a free agent with the Packers in 1995. Vanderjagt converted 86.5% with the Colts and Cowboys from 1998-’06.
“Man, those guys are just rare,” said one coach. “With a punter, you want those 6-4, 6-5 guys. Kickers, you really don’t.”
Other than Succop, the only kicker taller than 6-2 drafted in the last 15 years was Purdue’s Travis Dorsch (6-6, 220). The Bengals selected Dorsch in the fourth round in 2002, making him the tallest top kicker to be drafted since Chip Lohmiller (6-3, 211) was taken in the third round in 1988.
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Dorsch couldn’t beat out veteran Neil Rackers in training camp but Cincinnati retained him on the 53-man roster. Also a punter, Dorsch was given a chance to punt late in a 2-14 season and promptly had two of his five boots returned for touchdowns by Carolina’s Steve Smith.
The Bengals still had hopes for Dorsch as a kicker but he closed that door in 2003 to become a punter only. He kicked around with five teams, including a stint with Green Bay in ‘04, before retiring in ’06 without ever playing in another game.
“There were way too many moving parts,” remembered one coach. “He punted like a kicker.”
So now it’s opportunity time for Butker, who saved his best for last with the Ramblin’ Wreck by going 4-for-4 on field goals in a bowl victory over Kentucky.
“The size is unusual but I just liked him coming out of the combine,” said one coach. “He just seemed to be consistent and he had a simple technique. I’m big on real simple techniques, something I can coach.”