NFL has ‘special’ class of rookie kickers

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Minnesota Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer recalls being approached by his team’s scouts in advance of last spring’s NFL Draft with tapes of a little-known kicker from Missouri Western.

As soon as Priefer watched the tape, he knew he had to watch Greg Zuerlein in person, to “see if he’s for real.” Priefer traveled to Missouri Western, where the Kansas City Chiefs hold their annual training camp, and worked out Zuerlein. Due to the wind that day, Priefer decided an indoor workout would be best for evaluation, but he wasn’t expecting what happened next.

“We went indoors, and I couldn’t do a kickoff evaluation on him because he kept hitting the ceiling, and the ceiling was as high as (the one at the Vikings’ Winter Park facilities),” Priefer said. “I’m like, ‘Uh, this guy’s for real.’ “

Priefer came away impressed, as he was with Georgia’s Blair Walsh in another on-campus workout. Zuerlein never made it to the Vikings – the St. Louis Rams made him the second kicker drafted in 2012, four spots ahead of where Minnesota selected Walsh in the sixth round. Priefer saw in both Walsh and Zuerlein, the cream of a surprising rookie class of kickers, what it took to succeed at the NFL level. 

“I’ve had enough experience where I’ve been around guys that I know can make it or can’t make it,” Priefer said. “I’ve seen many guys fail because they can’t handle it up here. Very talented, big-time leg strength, just go crazy, just go whacko when little things go wrong and they can’t handle the mental part of it.”

This year’s rookie class has not only survived in the pressure-packed NFL but thrived.

Zuerlein has gained notoriety for his amazing leg strength, hitting a 60-yard field goal already this season and making five of seven from 50-plus yards. The first kicker selected, Texas A&M’s Randy Bullock, has been on injured reserve all year for the Houston Texans with a torn muscle near his groin. But Priefer and the Vikings have been plenty happy with Walsh, who has been the best of an impressive bunch that includes Zuerlein and undrafted Ravens rookie kicker Justin Tucker.

Walsh, just 5-foot-10, 192 pounds, has also shown off a big-time leg, hitting five field-goal attempts of 50 or more yards. He’s fourth in the league with 90 points this season, converting 95.8 percent of his 24 field-goal attempts, the second-best rate in the league for a kicker with at least nine attempts. He has missed only one field goal this season and has hit 14 in a row since the miss. He also is second in the league with 41 touchbacks on kickoffs.

Walsh credits having a dedicated special teams coach, something he didn’t have at Georgia. Tucker, too, said he has seen the same growth under the tutelage of Baltimore kicking consultant Randy Brown.

“Just from college to the first couple of days in training camp, I made a complete transition, transformation in my technique and what I’m doing out there,” said Tucker, who played college football at Texas. “I’m a completely different kicker than I was in school, and that’s a big credit to Randy.”

Tucker, who is eighth in the league with 56 points and has converted 94.4 percent of his field-goal attempts, said a proliferation of kicking camps are allowing kickers to get better at a younger age, and Walsh agreed.

“I think guys are just starting to take it more serious at a younger age, and I think guys are developing quicker,” Walsh said. “There’s more elite kickers in the NFL now than there ever have been.”

Tucker believes the slight of going undrafted made him work harder to land his job with the Ravens. Zuerlein might have had an even tougher proving ground coming from Division II Missouri Western. He wasn’t invited to the annual Scouting Combine in Indianapolis and instead participated in a regional combine.

But his workouts and tape spoke volumes and earned Zuerlein attention from scouts and special teams coordinators around the league.

“I didn’t think it mattered to me too much because I always thought kicking’s kicking at any level, whether it’s D-II or D-I,” Zuerlein said. “If you can do it, you can do it. It doesn’t matter. … You don’t really need to be a big-name guy or to go to the Combine. If you have the ability, the scouts will find you.”

And his big leg has certainly earned him attention throughout the league. Fans and media have tried to come up with nicknames. Among them are “Legatron” and “Greg the Leg,” but the even-keeled Zuerlein is taking his fame in stride.

“It was exciting because I come from a small school; you don’t really get a whole lot of that,” Zuerlein said. “You’ve just got to keep a level head because you know you are going to miss kicks. Everyone misses. You’ve got to keep a level head and not let people talk you up too much and not let them get down on you too hard when things aren’t going so well.”

Walsh has also made a big impression in Minnesota with his big leg, even though he hasn’t earned any nicknames yet. The Vikings are pleased, nickname or not, and Priefer isn’t surprised by the success of Walsh or his contemporaries. There was just something different about this class, in Priefer’s mind.

“It is extraordinary,” Priefer said. “The talent in this class is really good … pretty special.”

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