The Detroit Lions signed kicker Matt Prater to a one-year deal on Tuesday night. Prater joined the Lions after trying out for the team and beating out Jay Feely and Connor Barth, who both also worked out for Detroit on Tuesday.
With Nate Freese and Alex Henery previously being released this season, Prater is already the Lions' third different kicker, which is pretty amazing considering it's only Week 6. By comparison, the Lions had only two kickers from 1980-2012 (not counting occasional injury replacements), which says a lot about just how fortunate they were to have Eddie Murray and Jason Hanson. Since Hanson retired, it's been a struggle to get consistency at the kicker position, especially this season.
So, what exactly does Prater, who turned 30 years old in August, bring to the table? And how did the NFL's best kicker from last year end up becoming a free agent in the middle of the 2014 season? Here's a closer look at Prater and his NFL career:
Prater's first stint with the Lions
When Prater entered the NFL in 2006 as an undrafted free agent from UCF, he was signed by the Lions. Since Hanson was already in place as their starter, the Lions simply needed a camp body to take some of the load off of him, and Prater was chosen to fill that role.
Here's Matt Prater as an undrafted rookie who gave Jason Hanson some rest in 2006 (courtesy @Lions). pic.twitter.com/m9COvBahQ0— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) October 8, 2014
During his time with the Lions in the 2006 preseason, Prater went 4-for-4 on field goals (with a long of 48 yards) and 2-for-2 on extra points. That obviously wasn't enough to unseat Hanson, but Prater got a chance to show off his skills to other teams.
Life after the Lions
After leaving the Lions, Prater ended up joining the Miami Dolphins in 2007. He actually competed with Feely for the Dolphins' starting kicker job, and Feely ultimately won that competition. Prater was quickly scooped up by the Atlanta Falcons to take over their kicker job, but with a 1-for-4 start to the season, he was released after just two games.
Later in 2007, Prater joined the Denver Broncos after spending time on the Dolphins' practice squad. Prater was only with Denver for two games that season, and it appears he was strictly signed for kickoffs. In 2008, he became the Broncos' full-time kicker, and he served in that role through 2013, which was his best year in the NFL. Prater went 25-for-26 on field goals and 75-for-75 on extra points, and he set a new NFL record with a 64-yard kick.
By the end of the 2013 season, Prater had a career mark of 81.6 percent on field goals and 99.2 percent on extra points (only two misses in his career), and he went into 2014 as the best kicker in the NFL. (Note: Those stats are regular-season numbers only.)
Off-the-field issues and departure from Denver
This past August, Prater was hit with a four-game suspension for an alcohol-related violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. The violation allegedly stemmed from Prater simply having a few beers while on vacation, but that was enough to trigger a suspension since he was already in the NFL's substance-abuse program for a pair of DUIs.
With Prater suspended, the Broncos acquired 23-year-old kicker Brandon McManus from the New York Giants. McManus impressed the Broncos enough that they decided to release Prater last Friday, and they saved more than $3 million for the 2015 salary cap in the process.
Return to Detroit
While Prater was serving his suspension, the Lions were dealing with a crisis at kicker. Freese, their seventh-round draft pick, was released after going 3-for-7 in the Lions' first three games, and his replacement, Henery, was released after going 1-for-5 in two games.
With the Lions in desperate need for help at kicker, they brought in Prater, Feely and Barth for a workout on Tuesday. Prater was the final kicker to take part in the workout, and he ended up joining the Lions on Tuesday night.
Prater said he spent an hour with Caldwell talking yesterday. Said 5 or 6 other teams were interested— Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) October 8, 2014
Given Prater's suspension and off-the-field issues, the Lions had to consider more than just his on-field performance. Clearly they are willing to give Prater another chance, and Prater, to his credit, has been working to get his issues with alcohol in check.
Prater said he's a month and half into a 12-step alcoholism program. Appreciates the second chance with #Lions and said won't let them down— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) October 8, 2014
Prater said he'll be tested randomly once or twice a week. Hasn't had a drink in month and half. Thinks a new environment will be good.— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) October 8, 2014
What to expect on the field
At this point, the Lions simply need Prater to be an average kicker for them, especially on field goals beyond 40 yards. It's not like we can go back in time and rewrite history, but the Lions could easily be 4-1 or even 5-0 given how much missed field goals hurt them in their two losses this season. If Prater can step in and consistently make the kicks that Freese and Henery missed, the Lions will be a much better team. For what it's worth, Prater sounds quite confident in his abilities.
Prater on his range: "Whatever they send me out to kick, I expect to make." Said his longest in the workout was from 58.— Detroit Lions (@Lions) October 8, 2014
Prater, by the way, may contribute on more than just field goals. Punter Sam Martin has done an outstanding job as the Lions' kickoff specialist, but the Lions haven't ruled out the possibility of Prater taking over that role since he's got such a big leg. I suppose we will find out exactly what the plan is on Sunday when Prater makes his regular-season debut for the Lions.