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2015 NFL DRAFT

Jags inspire critics with punter pick, but kickers in demand

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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There was an ample dose of incredulity by many people when the Jacksonville Jaguars, a franchise with plenty of other perceived holes, invested a third-round selection on Bryan Anger, one of only two punters selected over three days.

Terrific handle for the new Jacksonville punter, whose surname matches the negative sentiment most Jaguars fans experienced when they heard of the choice. I mean, you can't make this stuff up.

No such outrage, though, accompanied the choice of Texas A&M kicker Randy Bullock by Houston in the fifth round. Or the subsequent selections of kickers Greg Zuerlein in the sixth round by St. Louis, Blair Walsh of Minnesota four picks later in the sixth, or Buffalo's choice of John Potter in the seventh. None of the TV talking heads exploded. There were no reported insurgencies in any of the four cities involved, with mutinous season ticket patrons threatening to cancel their renewals, or demanding refunds.

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Two reasons: All four kickers were chosen from slot No. 161 or later in the draft, after more than 60 percent of the overall choices had been exercised, and at a time that was clearly deemed more appropriate for selecting a specialist. And, perhaps just as important, in the universe of kicking footballs for a living, knocking one between the uprights is considered more essential than placing the ball out of bounds inside the 10-yard line.

Accurate or not -- and Jacksonville officials, and others, can probably break out all kinds of field position charts to defend the Anger pick -- that's simply the way that most clubs, certainly most fans, seem to feel.

The four kickers selected over the weekend represented the most since the league reduced the draft to seven rounds in 1994. It was only one fewer, in fact, than had been picked in the previous four drafts combined. In the 18 drafts 1994-2011, the average number of kickers picked in seven rounds was 1.8, and in six of those years, there was one or none. The previous two years, Alex Henery, tabbed by Philadelphia in the fourth round in 2011, was the lone kicker selected.

But in a league where as many as one-quarter of the games are decided by three points or fewer, field goals, and field goal kickers, have become a premium. And while there hasn't been a kicker chosen before the fourth round since 2005, when the New York Jets used a second-rounder on Mike Nugent, the position has taken on a much higher profile.

"Those guys win games," said former Indianapolis president Bill Polian, now an ESPN analyst, one of the league premier roster architects of the last 20 years, and a man who places a high priority on the kicker position. "You'd better have a good one anymore, or it can cost you. They're difference-makers."

Eliminate, just for the sake of argument, the enhanced significance of kickoffs, now that the NFL has moved the sight of origination up to the 35-yard line, and that there has been a corresponding increase in touchbacks. Even minus that key element, kickers are critical for their placement abilities, and they understand the importance of consistently splitting the uprights from inside 50 yards.

"It's what you're judged on at every level," allowed Walsh, who struggled at Georgia in 2011, after a superb career his first four seasons, "But in the NFL, you're expected to make the big kicks, even the long ones. The league seems to have so many really good kickers now ... it's almost like an upset when they miss."

Two of the four kickers chosen over the weekend, Bullock and Zuerlein, likely will win spots with their respective teams, the Texans and Rams, this year. Incumbent Texas kicker Neil Rackers signed with Washington as a free agent last week, and St. Louis released veteran Josh Brown shortly after choosing Zuerlein.

Walsh (in Ryan Longwell) and Potter (Rian Lindell) face much longer odds.

But teams seem to be willing to take some chances with younger kickers in general, even with the increase in importance. The price tags for kickers has escalated exponentially the past few seasons, and there is still a place in the league for new kickers, provided that the reward is commensurate to the risk of employing less expensive labor.

The Rams actually auditioned Zuerlein, who nailed 21 straight kicks (including nine from 50 yards or more) last year for Division II Missouri Western State, before the draft. He'll cost a lot less than Brown, who was scheduled to earn base salaries of $2.5 million in 2012 and $2.75 million in 2013, and who had salary cap charges of $3.375 million and $3.625 million for those two seasons.

But coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead, who also jettisoned veteran punter Donnie Lee in the offseason, understand they'd better hit on the moves.

"It's an 'all eyes on you' position," Fisher said of the kicker spot. "It can make a big difference to your team."

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