Football without a kicker?
On the surface, that seems like a ridiculous idea. This isn’t the Canadian Football League, where kickers and punters have historically been one and the same. Jack Fox has attempted field goals in college, but that is too much to ask from the All-Pro punter. So why should the Lions release both of their kickers on cutdown day?
As the Detroit Lions learned following the retirement of Jason Hanson, finding a serviceable kicker can be a challenge. Matt Prater is no longer with the team, and the burden of replacing him has fallen to Randy Bullock and Zane Gonzalez. However, neither kicker has stood out in training camp.
Their preseason performances have been perfect, but their attempts have been as simple as can be. Bullock is 3-for-3 on field goals, but his long is just 28 yards—shorter than an extra point. Gonzalez saw his first kicks against the Colts in Week 3 of the preseason, but his lone field goal was also a 28-yarder. In a rare twist, their performances in practice are more important than their performances during the games. Kicking is situational, and practice allows coaches to challenge their kickers in ways that might not occur during a game. Bullock and Gonzalez have had a fair share of misses in camp, and neither kicker instills much confidence going forward.
However, the crux of this argument isn’t about talent, but numbers. Specifically, roster size.
The Lions have very difficult roster decisions to make as they trim the team down to 53 players. Our Editor in Chief, Jeremy Reisman, struggled when making his 53-man roster prediction:
Eventually I'm going to have a 53, but I'm the guy who takes 15 minutes to read a menu, so my indecisiveness is killing me.— Jeremy Reisman (@DetroitOnLion) August 28, 2021
With so many questions at running back, receiver, defensive tackle, linebacker, corner, and safety, a single extra roster spot could be crucial. When cutdown day comes, I think the Lions should part ways with both of their kickers to free up another roster spot.
But doesn’t that mean you don’t have a kicker, a necessary position? Yes it does, but not for long.
Due to how roster rules work, a player placed on the Injured Reserve (IR) during preseason is out for the entire season, such as Shaun Dion Hamilton. However, a player placed on the IR after the roster is reduced to 53 players is eligible to return some time during the season, potentially after just three weeks. This is the key aspect of why the Lions should cut their kickers.
The Lions have two players who are likely candidates for the IR: Logan Stenberg and Da’Shawn Hand. If the Lions put either player on the IR right now, they would be out for the season, a non-ideal situation if their injuries aren’t serious. If the Lions want to put them on the IR, but still wish to play them this year, they will have to make the initial roster.
By cutting Bullock and Gonzalez, the Lions can use a roster spot on another player. For example, this could mean keeping Hand and Kevin Strong—under normal circumstances, Strong might not make the cut. When Hand goes on IR after the roster has been established, this opens up another roster spot, which can be filled by a kicker. There is a high risk that a player like Hand, Strong, or Stenberg would get claimed if the Lions opted to waive them.
This move isn’t unheard of either. In 2020, the New England Patriots cut both of their kickers ahead of the regular season. Nick Folk was later signed to the practice squad and elevated to the active roster for Week 1, before getting officially signed to the 53-man roster before Week 2. The Patriots still ended up with their kicker of choice, but they were able to save a roster spot for an injured player. A few days after the initial cuts, the Patriots placed running back Damien Harris and defensive tackle Beau Allen on the IR.
There is another aspect of the Patriots transaction that is worth noting. Had the Patriots simply signed Folk to their active roster after placing Harris and Allen on the IR, his entire contract would have been guaranteed, as there is an NFL rule that vested veterans’ salaries become fully guaranteed when on the 53-man roster for Week 1. Had the Patriots decided to cut Folk down the road, they would have been on the hook for his full salary. However, by signing him to the practice squad for Week 1, they bypassed this guarantee. They were able to still play him in the season opener due to the NFL’s new COVID-related rules that allow teams to temporarily promote two players per week from the practice squad to the active roster. So Folk played, even though he wasn’t technically on the 53-man roster. That rule has carried over to 2021. The Patriots were then free to sign him to the active roster for Week 2, successfully avoiding the guaranteed salary stipulation.
Given the inconsistencies with Bullock and Gonzalez, the Lions might want to explore kicking options later in the season if they struggle, as was the case in 2014 when the Lions went through Nate Freese and Alex Henery before settling on Matt Prater. Salary cap space can be extremely important in the event that mid-season injuries arise.
The biggest negative with this decision is that you risk losing both of your kickers. Neither Bullock nor Gonzalez would be subjected to waivers, but there is always a chance that another team offers them more money. Kicking competitions are being waged throughout the NFL, and there are other teams in a similar spot as Detroit.
However, you also have to acknowledge that losing either kicker might not be a significant loss. While signing a new kicker just days before a regular season game is suboptimal, kickers are one of the few positions where you can plug-and-play a player without much practice ahead of time. As mentioned, there are many kicking battles around the league, so there is guaranteed to be some talent available for the Lions. In a season that is more about building a foundation, I think the Lions can afford to suffer from poor kicking.
The Lions could explore a similar strategy by waiving long snapper Scott Daly. It is a relatively unimportant position—sorry, special teams aficionados—and Daly would have a good chance of clearing waivers. Even if he didn’t, the Lions could still turn to Don Muhlbach, assuming the released veteran is still willing to play.
If I were the Detroit Lions, I would release both kickers, then sign Bullock to the practice squad. You could then use the Patriots loophole with Nick Folk as a template, temporarily promoting him for Week 1 before officially signing him for Week 2. If everything works out, the Lions will get a player on the IR with no risk, while still keeping their desired kicker. The worst case scenario is that neither kicker returns, but I think the Lions can make due if that happens. Right now, I think the roster spot is more valuable.