Felger and Mazz Big Board: Kickers and Punters in the 2022 NFL Draft
Sports Hub Staff
As Felger has pointed out a few times this week, kicker and punter are both sneaky needs for the Patriots. Kicker Nick Folk is 37 years old, while punter Jake Bailey is entering the final year of his deal and due just over $4 million, most of which would come off the cap if the team can move on from him.
Last year the Felger and Mazz Big Board hit on some big time specialists, including Bengals playoff hero Evan McPherson. Will any of these kickers have that kind of impact in 2022? Will it be for the Patriots?
K Jonathan Garibay, Texas Tech
Oct 16, 2021; Lawrence, Kansas, USA; Texas Tech Red Raiders place kicker Jonathan Garibay (46) kicks the point after against the Kansas Jayhawks during the game at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
–Big, athletic kicker
–Consistent, repeatable mechanics
–Outstanding range, going well beyond 60 yards in normal weather
–Untested in weather
–One year of experience
(Source: Athlon Sports)
K Cade York, LSU
BATON ROUGE, LOUISIANA – OCTOBER 02: Cade York #36 of the LSU Tigers kick a field goal during the first half against the Auburn Tigers at Tiger Stadium on October 02, 2021 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
–Success rate of 84.6 percent on field goal attempts over the last two years
–Has hit 50-plus yard field goals at a 78.9 percent rate for his career
–Well-schooled and known as a self-fixer
–Did not handle kickoff duties at LSU
–Pulls the ball left on many of his misses
–Onside kicks were easy to handle for return teams
Our 2022 Patriots draft preview series wraps up with special teams – or as Packers special team coach Rich Bisaccia recently called it, ‘Wefense.’
This could be a special teams-heavy draft for the Patriots. In the last 10 years, the Patriots have made just six fifth-round picks. When they do select in that round, more often than not they take special teams focused players. Special teams cornerstones like Matthew Slater (2008), Zoltan Mesko (2010), Joe Cardona (2015), and Jake Bailey (2019) were all fifth round picks. This year, the Patriots are scheduled to have two selections in the fifth round (158 from Miami, 170).
Plus, the team has seen somewhat of a retooling among its core special teamers. That will likely continue after a relatively down year for the unit in 2021. Brandon King left in free agency, and Slater’s status is likely year-to-year at this point.
Will the Patriots use this opportunity to load up at depth in the kicking game? In addition to kickers and punters, we’ll look at players who profile primarily as kick coverage guys in the NFL as well.
Oct 30, 2021; Waco, Texas, USA; Texas Longhorns place kicker Cameron Dicker (17) connects for a field goal against Baylor Bears in the second half of an NCAA football game at McLane Stadium. (Stephen Spillman-USA TODAY Sports)
Is kicker a position of need for the Patriots? It’s hard to say. Nick Folk is back on a two-year deal, and was one of the best kickers in the NFL last season. He’s been pretty much automatic in his two-plus years in New England. At the same time, kicking is a fickle business and Folk turns 38 during the season.
The Patriots also have Quinn Nordin under contract. A UDFA from Michigan last year, Nordin wowed in training camp but had an up-and-down preseason. If the team thinks his accuracy issues are fixable, then they have the position accounted for in the short and long term. If not, they may be inclined to continue to look for Folk’s eventual replacement.
Will that come this year? The structure of this class isn’t favorable when looking at the Patriots’ historical preferences at the position. In recent years, they’ve favored kickers with experience kicking in inclement weather, highlighted by their selection of Marshall kicker and Rhode Island transfer Justin Rohrwasser in 2020. The top three kickers in this draft – and the only three with draftable grades – are all from southern schools. They are Gabe Brkic of Oklahoma, Cade York of LSU, and Cameron Dicker of Texas. While all three are solid prospects, the Patriots may see it as a knock that they don’t have a ton of experience kicking in cold, wind, and snow.
If the Patriots are going to add a rookie kicker for camp, the UDFA market would make more sense. Nate Needham of Bowling Green would be a likely fit.
Oct 15, 2021; San Jose, California, USA; San Diego State Aztecs kicker Matt Araiza (2) punts during the fourth quarter against the San Jose State Spartans at CEFCU Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
On the surface, punter is not a need for the Patriots. Jake Bailey is two years removed from an All-Pro season, and on the final year of his rookie deal. However, that doesn’t mean the Patriots won’t be in the market for a punter.
Because of contract incentives related to his All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections, Bailey is due just over $4 million this season. If the Patriots were to move on from him, only $72,520 of his salary would stay on the books and count against the cap.
On top of that, the Patriots have a history of extensive punter turnover, even predating Bill Belichick. Since Rich Camarillo in the mid-80’s, only one punter has played for the Patriots under separate consecutive contracts. That was Ryan Allen, who got a three-year extension mid-way through his rookie deal in 2015. He was then brought back on a one-year deal, but the team moved on from him in favor of Bailey that summer.
So, is there a punter in this class that would push the Patriots towards moving on from Bailey a year early? It’s hard to argue against San Diego State’s Matt Araiza, who just may be the best punting prospect in the history of the draft. By some projections, the Patriots’ traditional fifth-round special teams pick may not be early enough to select him.
What makes Araiza so special? In his first full season as a punter in 2021, the lefty re-wrote the NCAA record books. Among those records are his 51.2 yards per punt average, making him one of just four punters since 2000 to average over 50 yards per punt in a single season. He also booted a record 39 punts of 50-plus yards, and 18 of 60-plus. Araiza had two punts travel over 80 (!) yards, with both being downed inside the 15.
Can he control his powerful leg? Sort of. 37 of his 79 punts last season were downed inside the 20, which ranked second in Division-I. He did also have 15 touchbacks, which is the biggest knock on him right now. But as mentioned above, he’s still learning as a punter after picking the position up in college, and has plenty of room to grow his game.
Originally, Araiza was recruited to San Diego State as a kicker, and was the team’s starter there for three years – including the 2021 season when he set records as a punter. In those three years, Araiza hit 73.5 percent of his 68 field goal attempts, including multiple 50 yarders.
When Araiza made the switch to punting, he took a very scientific approach to developing his style. That involved heavily studying and trying to emulate the pro kicker he felt most resembled his build and skill set – Jake Bailey.
All in all, Araiza seems like an ideal fit for the Patriots. But that’s when Belichick can tend to zag. Would he look further down the board in what is considered a notably deep punter class behind Araiza?
Jordan Stout from Penn State was the Punter of the Year in the Big Ten, and has turned heads at the Senior Bowl and Combine. And while the Patriots don’t seem to value inclement weather experience as much from punters, Stout does check that box. Last season, Stout averaged 46 yards per punt with 35 of his 67 kicks being downed inside the 20, versus three touchbacks.
The third and final punter expected to be drafted this year is Georgia’s Jake Camarda. Camarda is a two-time All-SEC punter, and led the conference last year averaging 46.7 yards per punt with 16 of his 47 punts being downed inside the 20, compared to six touchbacks.
Texas’ Cameron Dicker, who is mentioned above, was both a kicker and punter for the Longhorns. While he’s entering the NFL as a kicker, that versatility adds to his value.
Oct 30, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers long snapper Cal Adomitis (94) warms up before the game against the Miami Hurricanes at Heinz Field. Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
There’s little reason to think the Patriots would move on from 30-year-old Joe Cardona at long snapper. However, we’re leaving no stone unturned.
Cal Adomitis from Pitt is the lone long snapper with a draftable grade this year. In 2021 he won the Patrick Mannelly Award, which is given to the nation’s best long snapper. He also was the first long-snapper to be named an All-American. Adomitis took part in the Senior Bowl.
Penn State gunner Drew Hartlaub (37) is the first Nittany Lion down the field to cover a punt return by Auburn’s Demetris Robertson (0) in the fourth quarter at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in State College. (Dan Rainville via Imagn Content Services, LLC)
In previous positional previews, we covered players who may or should be able to contribute in the kicking game right away, while working on developing their game in the other two phases. Here, we’ll look at players who projected to be coverage specialists, such as players like Matthew Slater, Brandon King, Nate Ebner, etc.
We’ll start by staying with Pittsburgh and take a look at John Petrishen. Petrishen is listed as a linebacker, but as a bit of a tweener (6-foot, 227 pounds) played at all three levels of the Panthers’ defense. Wherever he is on the field, Petrishen is a player who simply does a good job of getting to the football.
He wasn’t on even some deeper draft lists until recently, but had a fantastic showing at the Pitt Pro Day. He ran a 4.53 40, and perhaps more impressively had a 6.97 second 3-cone time. That would have ranked second among all linebackers at the Combine.
Staying in the state of Pennsylvania, Drew Hartlaub is listed as a safety on Penn State’s roster but mainly covered kicks in 30 career games for the Nittany Lions. Hartlaub wasn’t invited to the Combine, but blew scouts away at his Pro Day with a 4.28 40 yard dash and 6.75 3-cone. He was seen speaking with Patriots scouts after the workout. At 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, he’ll need to bulk up at the next level to handle the physical nature of kick coverage.
Then there’s Jared Bernhardt, who sounds more like a creation of Patriots fan fiction than an actual NFL Draft prospect. Bernhardt spent his first four years in college at Maryland, where he was a lacrosse star. Berhnardt’s 202 goals are the most in the history of the lax blue blood, and rank fourth all-time in the NCAA record books. In 2021, he won the Tewaaraton Award, which is lacrosse’s Heisman.
In 2021, he transferred to Division-II Ferris State, and as an option quarterback helped lead the Bulldogs to a National Championship. He completed 70.7 percent of his 123 pass attempts for 1,322 yards with 11 touchdowns and five picks, while rushing for another 1,416 yards and a D-II leading 26 more scores on the ground.
On top of all of that, Bernhardt comes from a football family. His father Jim was a long-time coach, and at worked under former Patriots assistant coach Bill O’Brien both at Penn State and with the Houston Texans.
Bernhardt worked out at the Maryland Pro Day, where the Patriots had a scout in attendance. He ran through drills at a number of different positions, but will likely end up in a full-time special teams role – either in coverage or as a returner – if he sticks in the NFL.
Nov 13, 2021; Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; North Carolina State Wolfpack running back Zonovan Knight (7) returns a kickoff for a touchdown against the North Carolina State Wolfpack during the second half at Truist Field. Credit: William Howard-USA TODAY Sports
Zonovan ‘Bam’ Knight of North Carolina State was the leading qualified kick returner in Division-I college football this past season, averaging 34.4 yards per return with two touchdowns. Knight was named All-ACC as a returner after the season.
Knight also plays running back, and can be a versatile player coming out of the backfield. He carried the ball 140 times for 753 yards last season, and added 21 catches for another 156 yards. Knight is good with the ball in his hands both between the tackles and on the edge, with field vision as one of his carrying traits. He’s currently projected to be a late Day 3 pick or priority UDFA.
Tennessee wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. finished second in the nation in punt return average, averaging 15.1 yards per return. He also returned 23 pickoffs averaging 27.3 yards per return with a score.
After being a primary returner for four seasons at USC and one at Tennessee (he transferred before the 2020 season), Jones got to play a significant role as a receiver in 2021. He caught 62 passes for 807 yards and seven touchdowns. Jones ran a 4.31 40 at the Combine at 6-foot, 200 pounds, which should put him on the radar of most teams. As a receiver, he can line up all over the formation. He’s at his best when he’s getting the ball in his hands on designed touches, or as a deep threat. One of his biggest knocks is his age – he’ll turn 25 next month. He’s currently projected as an early Day 3 pick.
We know the Patriots will look beyond the FBS and Division-I levels in the return game, like when they signed Gunner Olszewski in 2019. Dallis Flowers of Pittsburg State was one of the top kick returners at that level last year, averaging 33.7 yards per return with two touchdowns on 17 returns. Flowers transferred to Pittsburgh State prior to the 2021 season from Grand View University, where he was All-NAIA as a returner and cornerback.
Flowers could get some looks as a developmental cornerback prospect at the next level as well, at 6-foot, 195 pounds with 32-inch arms. He had solid ball production in 2021 with four interceptions and six pass breakups in 11 games, and tested well at his Pro Day (4.43 40, 6.98 3-cone). He’s currently projected to be a priority UDFA, although his stock has been rising since the Shrine Bowl.