For the past 21 years, the Detroit Lions had the luxury of not having to worry about the kicker position. While needs popped up at every other position, they knew they could count on Jason Hanson, who was drafted by the Lions in the second round back in 1992. He came to be known as ol' reliable, and he was a constant for a franchise that saw many different players and coaches come and go during his 21-year tenure.
On Thursday, Hanson's tenure with the Lions came to a close with him announcing his retirement. Hanson was planning on returning for a 22nd season as of last month, but he changed his mind due to wear and tear on his body. I'm sure the lack of a respectable contract offer from the Lions also played a part in his decision to retire.
Whatever the case may be, the reality of the situation for the Lions is that, for the first time in more than two decades, they need a new kicker. This isn't a situation where there's a need for an injury replacement for a few games or anything like that. Hanson is done playing football, and the Lions need a new permanent starter. How exactly should they go about finding one? Let's take a look at their options.
Sign a veteran free agent
The Lions brought in David Akers for a visit earlier this week, but he left without a deal. With Hanson retiring, might the Lions make him an offer and try to get something done? It's possible, but Akers is far from the only veteran available. Guys like Billy Cundiff, Shayne Graham, Steven Hauschka, Ryan Longwell, Olindo Mare and Lawrence Tynes are all free agents with several years of experience. If the Lions want to add a kicker with a proven track record, their best bet is to sign one of these players.
The downside of going this route, aside from the fact that some of these guys have jumped from team to team to team over the years, is that signing a veteran free agent doesn't exactly provide a long-term solution at kicker. The Lions likely wouldn't get more than a few seasons out of someone like Akers, meaning they would have to revisit the kicker position again in the next few years. That's fine if the Lions don't have a problem with finding a short-term replacement for Hanson, but if they want a long-term option, this isn't the way to go.
Sign a kicker from their special teams tryout
If the Lions want to go out and sign a kicker right now but prefer someone with a bit less experience, they could take a look at the two guys who tried out for them last month: Havard Rugland and Justin Medlock. Rugland is the Norwegian kicker known best for his skills on YouTube, while Medlock has some NFL experience (1 game in 2007 and 10 in 2012). Medlock was actually briefly on the Lions' roster back in 2010, which leads to the team's next option.
Sign one of their former kickers
Although the Lions only now need a new starter, Hanson hasn't been the only kicker on the roster over the years. The Lions typically brought in a camp body to take some of the load off of Hanson, and they also needed injury replacements on a couple occasions. With Hanson now gone, they could very well decide to just bring one of these guys back to compete for the starting job. Medlock, Hauschka and Cundiff have all been on the roster before, and Derek Dimke, Dave Rayner, Aaron Pettrey and Swayze Waters have spent some time on the roster in the past as well. Perhaps the Lions will opt to go with familiarity and bring back one of their former kickers.
Draft a kicker
In my view, the most appealing option for the Lions is to draft a kicker. There's no guarantee you will find the next Blair Walsh (the Minnesota Vikings kicker who went 35-of-38 last season after being a sixth-round pick), but this is the best route for the Lions to go to find a long-term replacement for Hanson. You obviously run the risk of drafting someone who isn't able to last in the NFL, but the same can be said about any pick in the draft. If your pick does pan out, then the kicker position could be set for the next decade or longer.
Here are some kickers to keep in mind for the draft: Florida State's Dustin Hopkins (played for Lions coaches in the Senior Bowl), Florida's Caleb Sturgis, Nebraska's Brett Maher (can also punt), Michigan State's Dan Conroy and Oklahoma State's Quinn Sharp (can also punt and played against Lions coaches in the Senior Bowl).
Sign an undrafted free agent
Even if the Lions do add a kicker through one of the options already mentioned, there's a very good chance they will bring in an undrafted free agent as competition. I can't imagine the Lions will go into training camp with fewer than two kickers, so look for them to make a run at the top undrafted kicker if they come out of the draft with only one on the roster.
What should the Lions do?
My personal preference right now is for the Lions to spend a third-day draft pick on a kicker and add an undrafted free agent to spice up the competition for the starting job. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if the Lions add a veteran free agent now and consider drafting somebody as well, but I'd rather they just go young and look for somebody who has the ability to be their starting kicker for the next 10 years. The Lions have had an unbelievable run at kicker with only Eddie Murray and Hanson being the full-time starters since 1980, and I'd like to see this continue with them drafting their next starting kicker.