An NFL scout’s perspective: My hardest position to assess
I started scouting in 1981, and the position that is by far the most difficult for me to assess is the kickers. By kickers I mean both punters and field goal kickers, and although on the surface it looks like it should be an easy task – placekickers need to be accurate and a punter needs distance and of hang time – but the reality is that it’s a lot more than that. .
The bottom line is that it’s not as easy as it looks.
When evaluating regular position players, you can watch the tape and get an idea of their productivity at their specific position. In my opinion, looking at the kickers on tape only tells part of the story. Of course, we can see how accurate a kicker is, how strong their leg is, and can get things like down times and hang times. We can also see if the kick was attempted during a significant part of the game. Was it a draw or a winning kick? What we don’t see, or understand, are the weather conditions. Was it windy? Which direction the wind was blowing. How does the kicker handle the wind? Was it raining? Was the game played at altitude? Without knowing these things, an evaluator does not get an accurate picture of the player.
Yes, after watching the tape we can go practice and watch the kicker play, but again in practice we don’t see the full ‘picture’ as there is no real ‘pressure’ during training.
The other thing that is important and perhaps the most important part of the assessment is the ball. Ball college kickers use it very differently than what is used in the NFL. In the NFL, kickers use new NFL balls every week. They are hard and don’t wear down which makes this ball harder to hit. In middle school, game balls are older and often scuffed, making them softer and easier to hit. So until we see a kicker kicking real NFL footballs, it can be a tough job again.
In preparation for the repechage, many clubs gave special teams coaches the responsibility of making the final evaluation of kickers. They will often go out and “coach” the prospect and make sure that when they practice the kicker uses NFL footballs. Coaches try to put prospects in pressure situations. During these workouts. Special teams coaches also network with the various kicking ‘gurus’, which can help them find out who the top prospects are, as these gurus often spend a lot of time with the top prospects. When the coach is heavily invested in selecting a player, he will do everything in his power to ensure that player performs well.
Needless to say, if a team selects a kicker, whether it’s a punter or a placekicker in the draft, there’s been a lot of work done on perspective. In some cases, it took longer to spot the kicker than a player in regular position. After all, a good kicker can make all the difference in how far a club has covered in the Playoffs, so the assessment has to be correct!
Which brings us to the Chicago Bears situation. For the past 8 seasons, Pat O’Donnell has been the Bears’ punter and he has done a commendable job. For his career, he averages better than 45 yards per kick and has a net average of 40 yards per kick. Compared to other bettors in the League, these numbers are excellent. O’Donnell was a free agent that spring, and the new Bears Front Office let him go. To replace him, the Bears drafted Trenton Gill from North Carolina State in the seventh round.
Gill has been very productive at NC St, averaging 46.3 yards per punt in 2021. This followed a strong 2020 season where Gill averaged 44.9. Gill also kicked off and last year 49 of his 70 kickoffs went for touchbacks.
Gill certainly has a strong leg but looking at the tape I have one concern and that is that he is a 2 ½ step punter and most special teams coaches in the NFL prefer a two step punter . That extra half step can be the difference between a strong punt or a blocked punt. This is an area I’m sure the Bears special teams coaches are working on.
The other concern is that Gill never kicked Soldier Field. Soldier Field can be one of the toughest stadiums in the league. Why ? Obviously, the weather at the end of the season but also the capricious winds throughout the fall. Inside Soldier Field, the winds swirl and having experience in those winds is of the utmost importance. At pitch level, it can feel like the wind is coming from one direction, but once the ball is in the air, the swirling air can affect the ball much differently than expected. Hopefully Trenton Gill can be a suitable replacement for Pat O’Donnell.