Rodrigo Blankenship’s NFL draft process will be different than most. Almost immediately, some teams will have no interest in him solely because of the position he plays, so the former University of Georgia kicker has to do research.
At the Senior Bowl, for instance, he didn’t turn down an interview, but he knows which potential destinations are realistic and which are not.
“Most other positions, pretty much any team could be in the market for that every single year,” Blankenship said. “With specialists, that’s not the case. … Once they got a guy they can trust, they know who is going to get the job done, they are not going to be super in the market until they prove otherwise.”
Blankenship could end up being drafted later this month. Since the NFL draft went to seven rounds in 1994, at least one kicker has been drafted each year except 2015, 2010, 1998 and 1996. The issue is figuring out what makes those kickers successful.
For every Sebastian Janikowski there is Roberto Aguayo. Of the 47 kickers taken since the draft went to its current round format, 19 ended up kicking for the team that drafted them for at least three seasons. If you include recent draft picks Jason Sanders (Miami), Austin Seibert (Cleveland) and Matt Gay (Tampa Bay), the number becomes 22.
Over half the time (53.2%), the pick is a failure.
“… A lot of times with kickers, drafting them, you almost do the kid a disservice,” Los Angeles Rams special-teams coach John Bonamego said. “You almost do the player a disservice because the expectation level now inside and outside the building becomes almost unrealistic. Once he struggles, which they are all going to struggle, especially the young guys, it becomes more difficult for them to overcome it because now, all of a sudden, they really feel the pressure.
“The kid that’s an undrafted guy, that’s just on the street, now every time when he does anything good, it’s like, ‘OK, yeah, great, maybe we found one here.’ The drafted guy, everyone expects him to do it and if he falters, now everybody’s pissed off.”
He and other special teams coaches told ESPN that about three kickers per year, at most, end up with grades good enough to consider drafting.
Of the top 10 kickers in NFL history, percentage-wise, just two were drafted: Harrison Butker and Stephen Gostkowski. Justin Tucker, Josh Lambo, Wil Lutz? All undrafted. Adam Vinatieri and Matt Prater, who aren’t in the top 10 but are considered some of the league’s best, went undrafted, too.
Even successful kickers who do get picked don’t always stick with those teams, including two of the NFL’s best in Kansas City’s Butker (Carolina) and Philadelphia’s Jake Elliott (Cincinnati).
And college success for kickers doesn’t necessarily predict NFL competence. Aguayo was considered one of the best college kickers ever and washed out of the league in two seasons. Nate Freese didn’t miss a field goal his senior year at Boston College, was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the seventh round in 2014 and lasted three games before losing his job. Some drafted kickers do rebound — Daniel Carlson lasted two games in Minnesota in 2018 before finding success in Oakland.
“People keep missing. Like any position, do as much scouting as you can on a guy until you feel comfortable,” Lions director of college scouting Dave Sears said. “… The hardest thing about that kicking position is the mental aspect of it until they are really out there on an NFL field.
“Really, until they miss and have to come back from it, you don’t know how they are going to be.” So how do you figure it out?
Consistency over time is a good baseline. Has the kicker done well throughout his college career? If not, what was the change — did it come from the snapper/holder operation or is it a shift in the kicker’s technique?
“And those are the guys that are, in my opinion anyway, very hard to correct. When you have a guy that looks the same every single time, now you know you have a chance to fix him if he ever gets out of whack.”
To really know a prospect, DeCamillis watches every kick of a college kicker’s career. He’ll account for changes as a kicker gets stronger and evolves, especially if his technique is refined by a kicker’s senior season.
“We’re watching everything and slowing them down and charting them and going through all their get-off times, which is the operation time,” DeCamillis said. “We’re going through the whole thing, you have to. You’re going to have to put all that time in to try and figure it out.”
Once a special-teams coach determines there’s enough consistency on film and production in games, then there is a next step.
It has been almost 15 years, but the workout still remains in Bonamego’s mind as the moment he knew a kicker was going to be successful in the NFL.
Bonamego was sold on Stephen Gostkowski before he even booted a ball in their one-on-one workout. It was everything leading up to it. Gostkowski handled everything. He got permission from Memphis to use the field on his own, a little thing that showed Bonamego the kicker’s attention to making sure everything operated smoothly. Their phone conversations and a lunch together left Bonamego impressed with how Gostkowski carried himself.
“That was one where this guy, he checked all the boxes,” Bonamego said. “He played baseball, too. You just kind of knew being around him and how he carried himself and how he interacted with everybody in the building, how people treated him.
“That this guy, he’s got it.”
His instincts were right about the eventual 2006 fourth-round pick by the New England Patriots. He made four Pro Bowls, won three Super Bowls, was twice named first-team All-Pro and is fifth all-time in field goal percentage (87.383).
Unlike other positions that use private workouts, kicker evaluations have the ability to really recreate game situations with just a snapper, holder and kicker.
“… What does your routine look like? I want to see that first,” Bonamego said. “Then I’m going to see what kind of range he has, not unlike a combine workout. We can start with mid-range field goals and finish with long-range field goals. Then I want to see him kick off and see what kind of onside kicks he’s got.”
Bonamego will push the range back until a kicker can’t make kicks anymore — sometimes 60 yards or more. Two kicks from 50 yards. Two from 53 yards. Two from 56.
If he really wants to challenge a kicker to see how he responds to pressure, he adds baseball rules: Three misses and the workout is over. Immediately. It’s one way to see how a player handles things — along with how he responded to game-winners and missed kicks in college.
“I want to see the mental makeup when it’s on the line,” Lions special-teams coach Brayden Coombs said. “A lot of these guys are able to make 60-yard field goals when it’s sunny out and 65 degrees and nobody is watching.
“To me, what separates the guys, the Justin Tuckers from some of those other guys, is you go do it when the game is on the line and you have 52 other guys over there — their livelihood is depending on you and being able to, kind of, bear that burden. I think that’s not easy to figure out in this process, but it’s what you try to figure out.”
This workout lets Bonamego look at almost everything he needs to evaluate a kicker: Range, mechanics and their mental approach when they miss a kick with a job potentially on the line.
These workouts aren’t available in 2020 because of rules in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are a couple of kickers, though, who might end up having an advantage this year because of the Senior Bowl.
Blankenship was already viewed as one of the top kickers in his class. The bespectacled Georgia native was first-team All-SEC, won the Lou Groza Award last season and made 81% or more of his kicks over his last three seasons with the Bulldogs.
As far as kickers go, he has as much name recognition as any entering a recent draft. But he’ll be helped more by the week in Mobile, Alabama. At the Senior Bowl, he was able to meet with teams — and all of them saw him work out live.
“They were seen by all the coaches, all the scouts that were at the Senior Bowl,” DeCamillis said. “Plus, that tape is also distributed, so it’s definitely an advantage for all those guys who were there, the snappers, the punters and the kickers.”
In lieu of being able to bring them in on their own, teams at least have this. And kicker-needy teams had likely already met Blankenship in person, too. Already prodded him for how he handles misses. All for a kicker who believes he has to just sell himself by the numbers.
At least, that’s his approach to it.
“We’re looking at things like field goal accuracy, looking at your splits on how accurate you are from certain distances and certain intervals. Looking at kickoffs, looking at touchback percentage, looking at hang time, where you’re putting the ball directionally, if you can put it in different parts of the field to pin a team deep,” Blankenship said. “You just have to look at those numbers, look at them every season and how those numbers add up over the years and over a career.
“So you just have to do your best to sell yourself, know that you’re a good guy, know that you’re good at what you do and just use your numbers in whatever capacity you can to justify that.”
Show he can be consistent. Show he has range. Show he can mentally handle a miss. All of which can make him a successful kicker in the NFL, drafted or not.