In what some feel to be the ultimate team sport, kickers stand out in football as individuals more than any other player on their team. Though they also require blockers and a holder, the success or failure of a kick, barring a catastrophic mistake, almost always comes down to the kicker’s ability to perform his most important task, kicking field goals. Kickers also perform extra point and kickoff duties, but their value to a team shines most brightly through their field goal kicking talents. When a game is on the line, tied with just a few seconds left, an entire game can rest on a kicker. And when that moment comes, you’re going to hope your favorite team’s general manager decided to use a bit of his salary cap space to pay a premium kicker, instead of picking up an unproven, undrafted free agent and hoping for the best.
As NFL free agency approaches, it is important to note that five of the NFL’s ten leading kickers from 2013 are up for free agency, only one of whom was among the ten highest paid last year. This may lead some to think that excellent talent can be found cheaply at the position, and while there is some truth to that, the decision to pay a top kicker means certainty at the position and guarantees each one will get a substantial contract. The alternative for teams is a constant rotation of kickers every year or two, hoping that the newest one can equal the talents of his predecessor, which is a punishing task for even the best scouting department. While quarterbacks, receivers and pass rushers will dominate the big contract talk this off-season, make sure to pay attention to your team’s kicking situation too. After all, when December rolls around and a single field goal can make the difference between making and missing the playoffs, you’ll be glad your team has a well-paid, proven kicker on their roster.
10. Connor Barth, Tampa Bay: $2,300,000
Connor Barth was forced to miss the entire 2013 season with a knee injury suffered in a charity basketball game, and will be looking to prove himself once again this upcoming year. Barth has done so time and time again throughout his career, however, and will welcome another opportunity. Barth was a first-team All-American in high school and graduated from the University of North Carolina with the school record for field goals in a career. After being cut by both the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs, Barth settled in Tampa Bay, and in 2009 tied an NFL record by kicking three field goals of 50 yards or longer in a single game. In 2012, Barth kicked nine field goals of 50 yards or more, including a career-best, 57 yarder. With an uncertain Tampa Bay offense, Barth’s talents will be valuable in helping the team score points next year.
9. Mason Crosby, Green Bay: $2,350,000
A sixth-round pick of the Packers in 2007, Mason Crosby was an important part of their Super Bowl-winning team in 2011. A two-time, first team All-American while at the University of Colorado, Crosby continued his kicking talents in the NFL, winning NFL Special Teams Player of the Month in both November 2007 and October 2013. Crosby currently holds the Packers record for longest field goal after kicking a 58 yarder in 2011. Though Crosby had a poor 2012 season, his 2013 season was a drastic improvement, as he set career bests in both number of field goals completed (33) and field goal percentage (89.2%).
8. Rob Bironas, Tennessee: $2,800,000
After three years of playing in the Arena Football League and attending pre-season tryouts with various NFL teams, the Tennessee Titans signed Bironas as an undrafted free agent in 2005, and haven’t looked back since. On October 21, 2007, Bironas kicked an astonishing eight field goals, setting the NFL records for most field goals in one game and most points by a kicker in one game (26, as he also kicked two extra points). Bironas also tied the NFL record for most game-winning field goals in one season, in 2005, with four, and was able to complete a 60-yard field goal in 2006. Bironas has been one of the league’s most consistent kickers for nearly a decade, and was rewarded with a new two-year contract this past off-season after his four-year contract ended after the 2013 season.
7. Matt Bryant, Atlanta: $2,962,500
After bouncing between the Arena Football League, NFL Europe and three different NFL teams early in his career, Bryant has split the bulk of his career between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons. Bryant spent four years in Tampa Bay, from 2005-2009, which the most notable moment coming from a 62-yarder in the dying seconds of an October 22, 2006 game against Philadelphia, which led Tampa to a 23-21 victory over the Eagles. Bryant’s best years have come since signing with the Falcons in 2009, however, as his four highest field goal percentages came from 2010-2013. Bryant has also made every extra point he has attempted as a Falcon. At the age of 38, Bryant seems to be proving that a kicker’s best years can sometimes be his later ones.
6. Josh Scobee, Jacksonville: $3,287,500
Like Bryant, Scobee seems to be getting better with age, as his past three seasons have seen his three highest field goal percentages over a full season (his career best was a 92.3% in 2007, marginally better than the 92% he put up in 2011 and 2013, but he played only eight games that year). After selecting him the fifth round of the 2004 Draft, Scobee has provided the Jaguars with stability in the position throughout his entire career. Scobee is the second of three kickers on this list to have tied the NFL record by kicking three 50-yard field goals in one game (Barth was the first), and his career long was a 59-yarder to win the game on the final play against the Indianapolis Colts in 2010. Scobee is currently two years into a four-year contract, and one of the bright spots on a weak Jaguars team.
5. Matt Prater, Denver: $3,312,500
Though Prater struggled with accuracy issues early on in his career, his immense leg strength was never in question, and luckily for the Broncos, their organization was patient enough to allow Prater to develop into one of the league’s truly elite kickers. Prater kicked a 59-yarder in 2010 against the Jets, and again in 2011 against the Bears. The latter tied the game with three seconds left, allowing Prater to then kick a 51-yarder in overtime to win the game. 2013 was his best season yet, making 25 of 26 field goals and setting two NFL records in the process. As Denver’s offense dominated, Prater was able to kick 75 extra points in one season. Most impressively, Prater kicked a 64-yarder on December 8 to close out the first half against the Tennessee Titans, surpassing the record of 63 that had been held by multiple kickers. While Broncos fans paid more attention to Peyton Manning than their kicking game, their fans should appreciate that they also possess one of the game’s best kickers.
4. Adam Vinatieri, Indianapolis: $3,400,000
Probably the best-known kicker in the NFL today, Adam Vinatieri’s record speaks for itself. He has won the Super Bowl four times (three with the New England Patriots, whom he played for from 1996-2005, and one with the Colts, whom he has kicked for since 2006) and kicked game-winning field goals in the final seconds of two of them. He kicked game-tying and game-winning kicks in the “Tuck Rule Game” against the Oakland Raiders during the playoffs in January 2002, a game legendary for the substantial blizzards that pelted Foxboro Stadium. He was also named as the first team kicker for the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team, as voted by the NFL Hall of Fame Selection Committee. His field goal percentage and longest kicks over the course of his career may not be quite as good as some of the other kickers on this list, but none of them have had the number of clutch kicks and team success Vinatieri has had over the course of his career. At 41 years old and without a contract for next season, his future is uncertain, but whether he plays again or not, NFL fans should be grateful to have witnessed one of the best kickers the league will ever see.
3. Robbie Gould, Chicago: $3,525,000
While he may have been the third-highest paid kicker in the NFL last year, Gould may have ended up working construction if it had not been for the Bears. After going undrafted in 2005 and being cut by both the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens, Gould briefly worked for a construction company in Pennsylvania, before the Bears signed him on October 8th, to replace injured kicker Doug Brien. After performing well that year, Gould followed it up with a second season that resulted in a Pro Bowl selection and an appearance in the Super Bowl. In the first week of the 2013 season, Gould kicked a 58-yarder, which was not only the longest of his career, but helped him tie the NFL record for most consecutive successful field goal attempts from 50 yards or longer at eleven. In December 2013, Gould signed a four-year extension, which will ensure he remains one of the highest-paid kickers in the NFL.
2. Stephen Gostkowski, New England: $3,800,000
It’s not easy to succeed a legend at any position, but that was Gostkowski’s task as the successor to Adam Vinatieri in New England. The Patriots used a fourth-round pick on Gostkowski in 2006, a high spot for the kicker, indicating both their organizational emphasis on securing a talented kicker and their faith in Gostkowski’s potential. Gostkowski has missed only one extra point in his entire career, which was blocked in his rookie season in 2006, and has been praised for having some of the longest kickoffs in the NFL. Gostkowski has also led the NFL in total points three times in his career, in 2008, 2012 and 2013.
This past season was also his most accurate yet, making 38 of 41 field goals for a 92.7% percentage. More than any other organization, the Patriots have demonstrated to the NFL how valuable a talented, well-paid kicker seen as a long-term solution for the position can be. While pundits and fans alike fixate on Brady and Belichick, the contributions of Gostkowski, and Vinatieri to the Patriots’ sustained success should serve as a model to GMs around the NFL about how to address the position.
1. Sebastian Janikowski, Oakland Raiders: $4,960,000
Janikowski is one of an incredibly rare breed: a kicker selected in the first round of the NFL Draft (17th overall in 2000). While his accuracy has not always been as high as many other elite NFL kickers, the statistic is misleading in Janikowski’s case. Throughout most of his career, the Raiders’ offense has struggled, forcing the team into more difficult kicking situations than the majority of the NFL. Janikowski’s leg strength is also legendary, which means that the Raiders are more willing to attempt long field goals, thereby forcing him to attempt kicks when most teams would simply elect to punt.
Janikowski is the only kicker in NFL history with multiple successful field goals from 60 yards or longer, and is tied with Barth, Scobee and two others for the most field goals of 50 yards or longer in one game with three. He also holds the record for the longest successful field goal made in overtime, at 57 yards. Janikowski is a truly dominant talent who is merely forced time and again into attempting kicks too difficult for any but an elite few. If he had played on a better team throughout his career, it would be possible that Janikowski would be a firm candidate for the best NFL kicker of all time.