In a mid-March mock draft, ESPN 1530’s James Rapien claimed the Cincinnati Bengals should take Arizona State kicker Zane Gonzalez with the first of their two fifth-round picks (153rd overall).
It’s definitely an interesting take. Especially considering how much of a headache the kicking game was for Cincinnati in 2016.
Gonzalez is ranked the best kicker in the draft by CBS Sports. In four years with Arizona State, Gonzalez made 204 of 209 extra points and finished 82.8 percent on field goals. As a senior last season, he made a career-high 92 percent of his field goals and made seven of nine kicks from 50-plus yards out. He was the lone bright spot in the Sun Devils’ 40-16 loss to Colorado last October, making three 50-yarders and an extra point.
According to CBS, only three kickers are expected to be drafted. Gonzalez (5-6), Memphis’ Jake Elliot (6-7), and Stanford’s Conrad Ukropina (7-FA).
The Bengals could draft a kicker at the end of the month. After all, they have 11 selections to work with. It just depends on how they feel about the pair of kickers they have on the roster.
The backup right now is Jonathan Brown out of Louisville. He was signed to a futures contract last January. Brown, 24, switched from soccer to football during his collegiate days and was a kickoff specialist for the Cardinals until an oblique sprain ended his senior season after just three games.
The starting kicking position is Randy Bullock‘s to lose. Bullock, a fifth-round pick in 2012, is on his fifth different team in the last two seasons. Long story short, he is kicking for some much-needed stability, rather than bouncing from franchise to franchise.
In three games with the Bengals, he was almost perfect. Bullock made 5 of his 6 field goal tries, but the one he missed was at the gun in Houston that would’ve given Cincinnati a 13-12 win. In hindsight, the game didn’t matter since the Bengals had been eliminated from a postseason return the week before, but it was frustrating to see another meaningful kick sail outside the uprights.
The three-game audition was enough for Bullock to get rewarded. Three weeks after the regular season’s conclusion, he inked a two-year deal with the Bengals.
Bullock should see some competition during training camp. The only question is whether the Bengals will draft a kicker or bring in a free-agent as an extra leg. Last summer, it was Arkansas product Zach Hocker who didn’t make the cut as Mike Nugent secured the starting role.
But of course, the story is well-known about Nugent. In 2016, his seventh with the Bengals, Nugent, a native of Centerville, Ohio just 50 minutes north of the Queen City, missed 12 kicks, including six extra points. He was released after missing a 36-yard field goal and a PAT against Cleveland in week 14.
But the Bengals are not a team familiar with taking kickers on draft day. Cincinnati drafted three over a nine-year span from 1993-2002, but have never taken one in the Marvin Lewis era.
Last year, the Buccaneers shocked the league by taking Robert Aguayo in the second round. He was the highest-drafted kicker since Nugent went 47th overall to the Jets in 2005.
You don’t have to remind the Bengals how important the position is. On top of Nugent’s struggles and Bullock’s miss that likely cost Cincinnati a couple victories, they are in a division with two of the best in the business and were hit hard by both of them last season.
In a five-point loss to the Ravens in week 12, Justin Tucker hit four field goals, three of them from over 50 yards out. A month later at home, the Bengals lost by four points as Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell went 6 for 6.
So, if there was a time to take a kicker, 2017 might be it. Lewis and special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons met with Gonzalez at Arizona State’s pro day on March 17th.