I started scouting in 1981, and the position that is easily the hardest for me to evaluate is kickers. By kickers I mean both punters and field goal kickers, and while on the surface it seems like it should be an easy task — placekickers need to be accurate and a punter needs distance and hang time — but the reality is it’s much more to it than that. .
The bottom line is it’s not as easy as it looks.
When evaluating regular position players you can watch tape and get a feel for how productive he is at his specific position. In my opinion when looking at kickers on tape it only tells part of the story. Sure, we can see how accurate a kicker is, how strong his leg is and can get things such as get off times and hang times. We can also see if the kick was attempted during an important part of the game. Was it a game tying or game winning kick? What we don’t see, or don’t understand is the weather conditions. Was it windy? In which direction was the wind blowing. How does the kicker handle the wind? Was it raining? Was the game played at altitude? Without knowing these things, an evaluator isn’t getting an accurate picture of the player.
Yes, after watching tape we can go to practice and watch the kicker perform but again in practice we aren’t seeing the complete “picture” because there is no real “pressure” when kicking at practice.
The other thing that is important and maybe the most important part of the evaluation is the ball. The ball college kickers use it much different than what is used in the NFL. In the NFL kickers use new NFL balls every week. They are hard and they aren’t worn, which makes that ball more difficult to kick. In college the game balls are older and often scuffed, which makes them softer and easier to kick. So until we see a kicker kicking with real NFL footballs it again can be a difficult task.
When preparing for the Draft, many clubs put the onus on the Special Teams coaches to do the final evaluation of kickers. They will often go out and “workout” the prospect and make sure that when they do the workout the kicker is using NFL footballs. The coaches try and put the prospects in pressure situations. When doing these workouts. Special teams coaches also network well with the different Kicking “Gurus” and this can help them find out who the best prospects are, as these Gurus often spend a bunch of time with the top prospects. When the coach is heavily invested in the selection of a player, he will do everything in his power to make that player perform.
Needless to say, if a team selects a kicker, be it punter or placekicker in the Draft, there has been a bunch of work put in on the prospect. In some cases more time went into scouting the kicker than a regular position player. After all, a good kicker can mean the difference in how far a club goes in the Playoffs, so the evaluation has to be correct!
Which brings us to the Chicago Bears situation. For the last 8 seasons Pat O’Donnell has been the Bears punter and he’s done a commendable job. For his career, he has averaged better than 45 yards per kick and has a 40 yards per kick net average. Compared to other punters in the League, those numbers are excellent. O’Donnell was a free agent this spring and the new Bears Front Office let him leave. To replace him the Bears drafted Trenton Gill from North Carolina State in the seventh round.
Gill was very productive at N.C. St, averaging 46.3 yards per punt in 2021. That followed a strong 2020 season where Gill averaged 44.9. Gill also kicks off and last year 49 of his 70 kickoffs went for touchbacks.
Gill certainly has a strong leg but in watching tape I have one concern and that is he’s a 2 ½ step punter and most NFL Special Teams Coaches prefer a two step punter. That extra half step can mean the difference between a strong punt or a punt being blocked. This is an area that I’m sure the Bears Special Teams Coaches are working on.
The other concern is Gill has never kicked in Soldier Field. Soldier Field can be one of the most difficult Stadiums in the League to kick in. Why? Obviously, the weather late in the season but also the tricky winds throughout the fall. Inside Soldier Field, the winds swirl and having experience kicking in those winds is of the utmost importance. From field level it could feel like the wind is coming from one direction but once the ball gets in the air, the swirling air can affect the ball much differently than thought. Here’s hoping that Trenton Gill can be an adequate replacement for Pat O’Donnell.