For the past two weeks here at CBSSports.com, we’ve taken a look at the top 10 players from each position group heading into free agency and as is our annual tradition around these parts, we’ve saved the best for last: Kickers and punters.
OK, so kickers and punters probably aren’t the most important, but you should definitely be paying attention to what’s going on in the world of kickers, and that’s because a struggling kicker can turn a team’s season upside down. Just ask the Dolphins about that.
In 2021, the Dolphins went into the season with the NFL‘s reigning All-Pro kicker, but then disaster struck when Jason Sanders hit just 74.2% of his field goals, which was the NFL’s fourth-lowest percentage for any kicker who attempted 20 or more field goals. Not only did Sanders miss eight field goals on the season, but three of those misses came in games that the Dolphins lost by three points or less. The Dolphins ended up missing the playoffs by just one game so if just one of those kicks had gone in, that might have been enough to boot them into the playoffs.
Although Sanders is under contract for 2022, the point here is that pretty much every kicker not named Justin Tucker will struggle at times and when those kickers struggle, teams will quickly look to replace them.
When free agency starts, there will be multiple teams that will be trying to figure out their kicking situation and the good news for those teams is that there are a few quality kickers to choose from in free agency this year.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the kickers who are scheduled to be available this year. (Keep in mind, there’s a possibility that this list could change over the next three weeks if any available kicker decides to re-sign with his current team.)
1. Younghoe Koo (Falcons)
It’s not often that a former Pro Bowl kicker hits free agency, but that’s what is happening with Koo. The Falcons kicker got voted to the Pro Bowl back in 2020 after a season where he hit 37 of 39 field goals, including 8 of 8 from beyond 50 yards. In 2021, he was the third most accurate kicker in the NFL with a field goal percentage of 93.9%. As a matter of fact, Koo is the ONLY kicker in the NFL who has hit more than 93% of his field goals in EACH of the past two seasons. Koo was also one of just THREE kickers in the NFL in 2021 who hit 90% or more of his field goal attempts and 100% of his extra points (Justin Tucker and Jake Elliott were the others). Koo has been so good that the Falcons would be crazy not to re-sign him. This is one decision that should be a no-brainer for Atlanta’s front office.
2. Matt Gay (Rams)
Gay was so good during a half-season stint with the Rams in 2020 that they decided to let him stick around in 2021 and the decision paid off big time. A big reason the Rams won the Super Bowl in 2021 is because Gay came up clutch for them. In 2021, Gay was one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL, hitting 94.1% of his field goals (32 of 34), which ranked second in the NFL. Gay was so good during the Rams’ Super Bowl winning season that he was actually voted as the Pro Bowl kicker out of the NFC, but obviously, he didn’t play in that game since he had a Super Bowl to worry about. It would be absolutely shocking if the Rams let him go after a season where he scored the third-most points in the NFL. It would also be shocking if they moved on because the Rams cycled through three kickers since the start of the 2019 season before finding Gay.
3. Nick Folk (Patriots)
Some players get worse with age, but not Folk, who arguably had the best year of his career with the Patriots in 2021, despite the fact that it was his 15th season. All Folk did was hit 92.3% of his kicks, including a game against the Titans in Week 12 where he kicked five field goals en route to scoring 18 of New England’s 36 points in a 36-13 win. All of Folk’s misses this year came from beyond 53 yards, which means he went a perfect 35-for-35 from inside 53.
Due to his age (37) and the fact that he doesn’t kick off, Folk probably won’t be a hot commodity on the free agent market, but he’s a reliable veteran and since Bill Belichick loves a reliable anything when it comes to kickers, it won’t be surprising if the Patriots sign him to another one-year deal.
4. Joey Slye (Commanders)
Despite playing for three different teams last season, Slye still managed to put together a solid year. The 25-year-old started his season with the Texans, but then was out after three games. He then latched off with the 49ers — to fill-in for an injured Robbie Gould — and once again, he was out after three games. Slye then finished his season with Washington and the crazy thing is that he seemed to get better with each one of his stops. For the 2021 season, Slye hit 92% of his kicks, which includes going a perfect 12-for-12 with Washington. Teams love Slye’s booming leg and he showed it off last season by going 4-for-4 from beyond 50 yards.
Slye was one of only two kickers in the NFL last season who attempted four or more field goals from 50 yards or more and made them all (Justin Tucker was the other). With the way Washington has been struggling at the kicking position, it would be a surprise if the Commanders don’t get a deal done with Slye before the start of free agency.
5. Dustin Hopkins (Chargers)
If you want to know how volatile life is for a kicker, just look at what happened to Hopkins in 2021. He started the year as Washington’s kicker, but got dumped after Week 6, despite hitting more than 85% of his field goals. A big reason Washington let him go is because he missed a key field goal in Week 1 followed by two key extra point misses in Week 4. After leaving Washington, Hopkins signed in Los Angeles, where he had a solid finish to the season with the Chargers by hitting 90% of his field goals. Although Hopkins only missed two field goals with the Chargers, one of them did come in a 35-32 loss to the Raiders in Week 18. Hopkins also hit just 40% of his kicks from beyond 50 yards. Hopkins is also tied for the third-most missed kicks in the NFL since the start of the 2020 season with 17. The guess here is that the Chargers try to re-sign him, but even if he does return, he’ll likely be on a short leash.
6. Michael Badgley (Colts)
The man known as the “Money Badger” had an up-and-down 2021 season and it will be interesting to see if the Colts try to keep him. Badgley started the year in Tennessee, but got cut after missing an extra point and a field goal in the Titans’ season-opening loss to Arizona. After sitting out the next five weeks of the season, Badgley latched on with the Colts to replace an injured Rodrigo Blankenship. Badgley played so well down the stretch that Indy let him keep the job even when Blankenship became healthy. The biggest concern with the Money Badger is that he has the third-most missed kicks in the NFL (field goals and extra points combined) since the start of the 2020 season. He also wasn’t asked to do much in 2021: His longest field goal of the year was from just 46 yards away (He was 0-for-2 on kicks beyond 46).
7. Greg Joseph
Joseph actually had a pretty solid year in Minnesota, hitting 33 of 38 field goals, but most Vikings fans only remember him for one kick and that’s the field goal he missed in Week 2 that cost Minnesota a win against the Cardinals.
One other knock on Joseph is that he’s struggled with extra points as he had the third-lowest conversion rate for any kicker who attempted 20 or more in 2021. One big upside for Joseph is that he has a rocket for a leg: The kicker hit seven field goals from beyond 50 yards, which was tied for the third-most in the NFL last season. Two of those long kicks came in a 19-17 win over the Lions in Week 5, including a 54-yard game-winner as time expired.
Basically, if the Vikings don’t try to re-sign Joseph, there’s a good chance he’ll end up somewhere.
8. Randy Bullock (Titans)
After hitting a career-high 90% of his field goals in 2017, Bullock has slowly been regressing since then. Over the past four seasons, he’s hit just 83.8% of his field goals, which isn’t terrible, but the bigger problem is that he’s struggled from longer distances. During the 2021 season, Bullock hit just 64.3% of his kicks from beyond 40 yards. The Titans kicker also hit just 93.3% of his extra points, which ranked in the bottom half of the league. That being said, Bullock is a consistent veteran and if the Titans don’t re-sign him, he’ll likely find a landing spot somewhere else.
9. Zane Gonzalez (Panthers)
Gonzalez ended his season on injured reserve after hurting his quad during a pregame warmup in Week 14, so there’s no way to know how he’ll look when he returns from injury, but if he looks healthy, then the Panthers will likely try to keep him. During 12 games with the Panthers, Gonzalez was a perfect 20-of-20 from 53 yards and in (His only two misses on the season came from 54 and 55 yards out). Gonzalez’s 2021 season was easily the best of his career — he hit 90.9% of his field goals — and the only reason he isn’t higher on this list is because he hit just 78% of his field goals from 2017 thru 2020, so it’s possible the 2021 season could have been an outlier for him and it’s also hard to predict what he’ll look like coming off a major injury.
10. Eddy Pineiro (Jets)
After spending the 2020 season on injured reserve in Chicago, Pineiro had a hard time finding a place to play in 2021 before the Jets finally gave him a chance in Week 13. Pineiro responded by going a perfect 8-of-8 on field goals. The Jets had a Pro Bowl kicker in 2018 (Jason Myers), but they let him walk in free agency, and since then, the position has been a nightmare. Due to the way Pineiro finished the season, it won’t be a shock if the Jets try to sign him to a one-year deal.
Other kickers: Chase McLaughlin, Sam Ficken
Punters hitting free agency
Bryan Anger (Cowboys)
Andy Lee (Cardinals)
Kevin Huber (Bengals)
Pat O’Donnell (Bears)
Michael Palardy (Dolphins)
Corey Bojorquez (Packers)
Thomas Morstead (Falcons)
Jordan Berry (Vikings)
Dustin Colquitt (Browns)
Ty Long (Chargers — Restricted free agent)
Lachlan Edwards (Panthers)
JK Scott (Jaguars)
With 12 players set to hit free agency, things could get pretty crazy in the punting department this year. The most notable name on this list is probably Anger, who was the NFC’s Pro Bowl punter in 2021 after a season where he finished with a net punting average of 44.6 yards, which was the highest in the NFL. The fact that the Cowboys haven’t already re-signed him is somewhat surprising because he definitely seems like their best option right now. .
One interesting thing about this group of punters is that most of them signed a one-year deal for the 2021 season. This applies to Lee, Huber, O’Donnell, Palardy, Colquitt, Edwards and Scott. Their teams weren’t ready to commit to a punter last year, so they signed them to a short-term deal.
Lee is one of the best of the bunch and as long as the 39-year-old doesn’t retire, the Cards will likely bring him back for another year. As for Huber, he’s been a mainstay in Cincinnati for 13 seasons, so it won’t be surprising if he signs on for one more year, but the fact that the Bengals only gave him a one-year deal in 2021 might be a sign that they’re getting ready to move one. The same could be said for O’Donnell, who only got a one-year deal from Chicago last season. The Bears signed another punter last week (Ryan Winslow) and that punter will likely serve as insurance if the team can’t get a deal done with O’Donnell in the next three weeks.
Two interesting decisions will be coming in Green Bay and Miami. Although the Packers could end up re-signing Bojorquez and the Dolphins might keep Palardy, both teams will likely think long and hard about the decision because of a skill that has nothing to do with punting: Holding. Mason Crosby was one of the best kickers in the NFL in 2020, but he struggled in 2021 with Bojorquez as his holder. In his past three seasons as a holder (two with Buffalo and one with Green Bay), kickers have only hit 78.1% of their field goals with Bojorquez holding. As for the Dolphins, Jason Sanders was an All-Pro kicker in 2020, but regressed in 2021 with Palardy as his holder. In Palardy’s last two years as a holder, his kickers have only made 76.2% of their field goals (48 of 63).
What all of this means is that the punter free agency market should actually be somewhat exciting this year. I think what I’m trying to say is that if you’re only going to pay attention to one position in free agency, it should probably be punters. And kickers, so two positions.