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 today, we're finishing things off with the most important free agents of all: Kickers and punters.
OK, so they're probably not 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 Vikings about that.
In 2020, the Vikings went into the season with one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL, but then disaster struck when Dan Bailey hit just 68.2% of his field goals, which was the lowest conversion rate in the NFL. Bailey's struggles arguably cost the Vikings a chance to win in two different games. For a team that finished 7-9, those two wins were the difference between making and missing the playoffs.
Although Bailey is under contract through 2022, the Vikings have shown they won't be afraid to replace him. Minnesota has already signed one kicker (Greg Joseph) and that could be the first of many kicking dominoes to fall around the league this year.
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 lot of 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.)
Top 10 kickers
1. Younghoe Koo (Falcons)
It's not often that a Pro Bowl kicker hits free agency, but that's what is happening with Koo. The Falcons kicker got voted to the Pro Bowl after a season where he hit 37 of 39 field goals, including 8 of 8 from beyond 50 yards. At one point during the season, Koo connected on 27 straight kicks. He also led the NFL in most field goals and tied for the NFL lead in points scored (144). Koo did struggle with extra points, but he was so good on everything else that the Falcons would be crazy not to re-sign him.
2. Ryan Succop (Buccaneers)
A big reason the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl in 2020 is because Succop came up clutch for them. After hitting 90.3% of his field goals during the season, Succop was even better in the postseason, hitting 100% of his kicks (9 of 9). Succop has never missed a playoff kick in his career (13 of 13) and is just one of five kickers in NFL history who has attempted 10 or more field goals in the playoffs and made them all. If there's one knock on Succop, it's that he hit just 72.7% of his kicks from beyond 40 yards in the regular season (8 of 11). That's not ideal, but the Buccaneers kicking situation has been a nightmare for so long, you have to think they'll bring back the guy who fixed their problems.
3. Daniel Carlson (Raiders)
After watching Carlson hit just 73.1% of his kicks in 2019 (19 of 26), the Raiders took a gamble and re-signed him to a one-year deal for 2020 and the risk paid off big time as Carlson turned out to be one of the best kickers in the NFL last season. Not only did Carlson rank in the top-10 in both field goal percentage and extra point percentage, but he also went 4 of 4 on kicks of 50 yards or more. Carlson only missed two field goals all season (33 of 35) and one of them was the kick you see below, which was an attempt in Cleveland that shouldn't even count as a miss because he had to kick into a 50 mph crosswind.
4. Stephen Gostkowski (Titans)
Although Gostkowski finished with the second-worst field goal percentage in 2020 (69.2%), he hit 90% of his field goals and 100% of his extra points over the second half of the season, which is one reason why I'd think about bringing him back if I'm Tennessee. Gostkowski missed the final 12 weeks of the 2019 season with a serious hip injury and then didn't get any preseason games to make sure his mechanics were still on point, so it wasn't surprising to see him get off to a slow start over the first half of the 2020 season. The argument for signing Gostkowski that he was one of the best kickers in the NFL over the final eight weeks of the season. Not only did he close his first year with the Titans by hitting 42 consecutive extra points, but he also hit six straight field goals to end the year. He also went 7 of 8 from 50 yards or more.
5. Cairo Santos (Bears)
From 2016 to 2019, the Bears had one of the ugliest kicking situations in the NFL, but that all changed in 2020 with Santos. Chicago isn't an easy place to kick, but Santos made it look easy as he ranked in the top-7 in in both field goal percentage and extra point percentage. The Bears learned a tough lesson after letting one good kicker walk away in free agency (Robbie Gould) and it will be surprising if they make the same mistake twice by letting Santos walk away.
6. Randy Bullock (Bengals)
After hitting a career-high 90% of his field goals in 2017, Bullock has slowly been regressing since then. Over the past three seasons, he's hit just 82.7% of his field goals. In 2020, he was one of just two kickers in the NFL to miss multiple field goals between 30 and 39 yards (Cody Parkey was the other). Over the past two seasons, Bullock has hit just 75% of his kicks from beyond 40 yards. That being said, Bullock is a consistent veteran and if the Bengals don't re-sign him, he'll likely find a landing spot somewhere else.
7. Cody Parkey
In his first full season since his double-doink miss with the Bears in the 2018 playoffs, Parkey had a decent year, hitting 86.4% of his kicks. However, the Browns didn't ask much of him. Parkey was the only full-time kicker in the NFL last season who didn't attempt a kick of 50 or more yards, so it's not clear what his range is right now. His longest field goal attempt of the year was from 46 yards away. Parkey was also one of just two kickers in the NFL to miss multiple field goals between 30 and 39 yards last season (Bullock was the other). Of course, one of those misses came in that wildly windy game against the Raiders, so you can't really hold it against him.
8. Joey Slye
Although Slye hit just 80.6% of his field goals last season, that number is kind of misleading, because two of those misses came from 65 yards or longer, and the crazy thing is, he almost MADE one of those two long kicks.
Panthers kicker Joey Slye missed this 65-yard attempt by about ONE FOOT. This is how close he came to setting the NFL record for longest field goal, and this kick came in a high-pressure situation (Trailing 27-24 with 2 minutes left) #Panthers #Saints pic.twitter.com/aTxh3jn1v4— John Breech (@johnbreech) October 25, 2020
If you take out his two long misses, then his field goal percentage in 2020 was a much more respectable 85.3. The upside with Slye is that he was almost perfect from inside of 50 yards last season, hitting 93.3 % of his field goals (28 of 30). Slye has a big leg and he's young, so he'll be an attractive free agent if the Panthers don't re-sign him first.
9. Matt Prater (Lions)
Prater might end up being the most polarizing kicker on the market and that's because he has a big leg -- he holds the NFL record for longest field goal (64 yards) -- but he's also known to be erratic. Despite playing indoors in Detroit, Prater was only able to hit 75% of his kicks last season, which ranked sixth-worst in the NFL last season. From beyond 40 yards, Prater hit just 58.8% of his kicks (58.8%), which is one reason why he'll be a gamble for any team that signs him.
10. Nick Folk
Some players get worse with age, but not Folk, who arguably had the best year of his career with the Patriots in 2020, despite the fact that it was his 14th season. All Folk did was hit 92.9% of his kicks, including a 51-yarder to beat the Jets in November.
Due to his age (36) 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 who will almost certainly find a landing spot for 2021.
Others: Zane Gonzalez, Michael Badgley
Punters hitting free agency
Kevin Huber (Bengals)
Andy Lee (Cardinals)
Matt Haack (Dolphins)
Pat O'Donnell (Bears)
Jordan Berry (Steelers)
Ryan Allen (Only played three games in 2020)
Michael Palardy (Panthers -- Missed 2019 season due to torn ACL)
Cody Bojorquez (Bills -- Restricted free agent)
Assuming no one on this list re-signs with their team before free agency starts, the market for punters could get interesting this year. The most notable name on this list is Bojorquez, who led the NFL in punting average in 2020 with an astounding 50.8 yards per kick, a number that's the fifth-highest in NFL history. Bojorquez only made $750,000 and he's going to get a hefty raise in 2021, either from the Bills or from a team that attempts to steal him away. The most likely scenario, though, is that he stays in Buffalo.
Another name that likely won't be going anywhere is Kevin Huber. The Bengals punter has spent his entire 12-year career in Cincinnati and it wouldn't make much sense for the Bengals to let him go after a season where he ranked seventh in net punting average. Like Huber, Pat O'Donnell has also spent his entire career with one team (Chicago) and it will be surprising if the Bears let him walk.
If a team is looking for a punter with some touch, Matt Haack could be the answer. Haack placed 26 of his punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line last season, which was tied for the sixth best number in the NFL.