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Kickin' It

Yesterday in my "Weekend Roundup" post, I talked a little bit about the kicker situation. But I wanted to really get more into that because I think it's a lot more interesting than some realize.

Last season, Jay Feely was about as reliable as they come when it came to field goals. He ranked 3rd among all kickers in the NFL with at least 10 field goal attempts with a 91.3% FG percentage, including connecting on all 13 field goals that were within 39 yards. Yes, reliability as a field goal kicker was a big time plus from Feely in 2007.

However, that only tells half the story. The problem with Feely was with his kickoffs. Despite coming off of a career high in kickoff length (64.6 yds) in 2006 as well as never having a kickoff length less than 62 yards (which he did in his rookie year), Feely struggled mightily in '07. His kicks traveled an average of just 57.8 yards, which was good enough for 34th among all players who had at least 10 kickoffs. To put this in perspective, an average of 58 yards on a kickoff means that the opposing team's return man averaged fielding the ball at his own 12 yard line. Meanwhile, the top 20 kickers in the league in terms if kickoffs averaged at least 63 yards per kickoff, placing the opposing return man at his own 7 yard line. That's a 5 yard difference in field position, which can not be underestimated.

Other key numbers for kickoffs are touchbacks and kicks that land out of bounds. Feely had 8 touchbacks, placing him 17th in the NFL and his 12.1% touchback percentage ranked him 16th. Meanwhile, Feely had 3 kicks land out of bounds, which was 3rd most in the NFL. A 2.6:1 ratio between touchbacks and kicks out of bounds is not very good.

Enter the competition.

Dave Rayner was signed by the Dolphins back in March. In 2007, he split time between Kansas City and San Diego. 2006 was his only year as a full-time kicker, performing FG and kickoff duties for the Packers. His first year, 2005, was spent as the kickoff specialist for the Colts.

Rayner is nowhere near as reliable of a FG kicker as Feely is. For his career, Rayner is 41 of 58 (70.7%), including a sub-par 27 of 33 (82%) from inside 40 yards. But where Rayner is effective is on kickoffs. His 2007 kickoff distance of 67.6 yards ranked him in a tie for 1st in the NFL among kickers with at least 10 kickoffs. This average length translates to the opposition fielding the ball at their own 2 yard line. Not too shabby.

But Rayner isn't Feely's only competition. The Dolphins also signed undrafted free agent kicker Dan Carpenter out of Montana. Carpenter, over his final 2 seasons at Montana, was 43 of 53 (81%) on field goal attempts, including 4 of 5 from beyond 50 yards with a long of 54 yards. However, from inside 40, Carpenter was just 25 of 30 (83%).

But what is impressing coaches about Carpenter is his strong kickoff leg. As a senior last year, Carpenter kicked off 78 times for 5,006 yards. That's an average of 64.2 yards per kickoff. If you translate that to where the opposing return man averages fielding the ball (in the NFL, not college), it would be from his own 6 yard line. Also, of those 78 kickoffs, Carpenter only kicked one out of bounds.

So what does all this mean? I think it means we are likely in for a relatively intriguing battle. I would doubt that this regime will keep 2 kickers and use one as a kickoff specialist while Feely handles FG duties. That's too much of a waste of a roster spot. So, instead, we are really going to see what this new regime values more. Is it field goal consistency and reliability or is it distance on kickoffs?

Also keep in mind that another possibility could be keeping Feely around as the FG kicker but letting second-year punter Brandon Fields handle the kickoff duties. Fields has a strong leg and did get one opportunity to kickoff last season, knocking it to the 10 yard line (a 60 yard kick). Perhaps if Fields can show in camp that he's capable of consistently kicking the ball inside the 10 yard line and keeping it in bounds, that would be enough for the Dolphins to cut the other 2 kickers loose and use Feely as the FG kicker and Fields as the kickoff specialist.

So any predictions on how this plays out?