Craig: Rookie kickers give the boot to convention

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 3, 2012 - 1:05 PM

First-year kickers, including the Vikings' Blair Walsh, have shown the mettle to succeed.

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Vikings kicker Blair Walsh

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When the Vikings decided they needed a young kicker pronto, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer asked the team's personnel department to assemble a spreadsheet on all the rookies who were their team's primary kicker from 2007 to 2011.

The numbers confirmed Priefer's gut instinct. NFL coaches no longer needed to fear the rookie kicker.

"Nowadays, for whatever reason, it's who the rookie is that matters, not the fact he's a rookie," Priefer said. "So many more of them are prepared to handle it. So you look for the right personality, the right work ethic."

The seven kickers on that spreadsheet were a combined 161-for-188 on field-goal attempts their rookie season. That's a significantly high percentage (85.6) for seven young legs that can boom kickoffs farther and higher than aging veterans who typically cling to roster spots long after they've lost their kickoff legs.

On that list was Nick Folk, who made the Pro Bowl with the Cowboys in 2007; Ryan Succop, who made 25 of 29 field-goal attempts (86.2) for the Chiefs as the draft's Mr. Irrelevant of 2009; and Alex Henery, who set the NFL record for rookie field-goal percentage (88.9) as a fourth-round pick of the Eagles last year.

Also on the list were the Saints' Garrett Hartley, who made all 13 attempts in eight games in 2008; Dallas' Dan Bailey, who made 32 of 37 (86.5) last season; Green Bay's Mason Crosby, who made 31 of 39 (79.5) in 2007; and Connor Barth, who made 10 of 12 (83.3) in 10 games for the Chiefs in 2008. The Chiefs also went with a rookie kicker in 2007, but Justin Medlock, a fifth-round pick, kicked in only one game for Kansas City, making one of two attempts. He disappeared from the league from 2008 to '11 before resurfacing in Carolina, where he has made the Panthers' one and only field-goal attempt this year.

As good as the seven kickers on that spreadsheet were as rookies, they all might have to step aside for the Class of 2012. The Vikings' Blair Walsh, Baltimore's Justin Tucker and St. Louis' Greg Zuerlein are making field goals at a 93.5 percent clip (29-for-31) while each ranks in the top eight in the league in scoring. And Zuerlein is the old guy of the bunch at 24 years.

"Hopefully, what we're doing is proving you can trust rookie kickers," Walsh said. "It's good that the general managers in the league are giving some more opportunities to the young guys."

Actually, there would be another rookie out there kicking for one of the league's three unbeaten teams, but Houston's Randy Bullock tore a groin muscle in August. He was the highest of three kickers drafted this year. He went in the fifth round, while Zuerlein (171st overall) and Walsh (175th) went in the sixth round. Tucker went undrafted.

"Bullock will be Houston's kicker for a long time," Priefer said. "And he'll be a darn good one."

As good as Walsh has been while crushing kickoffs and making nine of 10 field-goal attempts -- including a last-second, game-tying 55-yarder in his pro debut against the Jaguars -- he isn't the league's best rookie kicker through four games. That distinction belongs to Zuerlein, the kid from little Missouri Western State. He is 12-for-12 with enough range to earn the nicknames "Greg the Leg" and, even better, "Legatron."

During the Rams' 19-13 victory over Seattle on Sunday, Zuerlein broke the team record for longest field goal. Twice.

He kicked a 58-yarder to break a 14-year-old record. Then he kicked a 60-yarder, becoming the first kicker in NFL history to kick two field goals of 58 yards or more in the same game.

"Zuerlein isn't from a big school like Tucker [Texas] or Blair [Georgia]," Priefer said. "But he very easily could have kicked anywhere. These three guys this year are pretty special."

Tucker's longest field goal is 56 yards. Walsh's was the 55-yarder, but it's probably only a matter of time before both connect from 60. Walsh's 55-yarder and Sunday's 49-yard rocket would have been good from at least 60 yards.

Asked how long he would like to play, the 22-year-old Walsh smiled and delivered an old veteran's response.

"Until the next game," he said. "I've found that if you can become dependable, teams won't care how old you are."

Mark Craig • mcraig@startribune.com

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