This is a guest post from T.J. McCreight. McCreight has worked as a scout, director of pro personnel, director of college scouting, and a player personnel executive across multiple NFL teams.
One question that NFL front offices kick around is the philosophy of selecting kickers in the draft.
When surveying the league, many top kickers went undrafted, spent time on practice squads, or were cut several times before settling in with a team. It can be hard to appreciate kickers until your favorite team goes through a season with critical misses and lost games.
In my career, I had the good fortune to be around some of the best that ever did it: Matt Stover, Phil Dawson, Jay Feely, and Adam Vinatieri. Phil Dawson, who kicked through a 20-year NFL career, had to navigate the winds whipping off Lake Erie for 14 years. Kicking in Cleveland can be hard because when you stand on the field, the wind is swirling at you from all different directions. The flags that sit atop the goal post cannot be trusted and the harsh wind will seemingly shoot the ball out of the air.
I vividly remember watching Dawson go on the field several hours before games started to go through a pre-game routine; it felt more like a mad scientist in the lab. He would kick from both directions, he would kick from both hashes, and he would alter his trajectory based on how the wind may be blowing in the 4th quarter.
In 2007, we found ourselves playing the Buffalo Bills in a blizzard with wind gusts that pushed 40 miles per hour. Neither team could move the football, and I thought that we could end up with the first 0-0 tie in NFL history. Yet, Phil was able to navigate the weather and drove the ball through the uprights for two field goals despite the wind, snow, and poor footing on the way to an 8-0 victory. It was one of the most remarkable performances I have ever watched. Needless to say, kickers have always been an important piece to each Cleveland Browns team and a hot topic within the organization.
In 2022, the Browns spent a 4th round draft pick on LSU standout kicker Cade York. The Browns felt like they had their kicker for the next 10 years, especially when he booted a 58-yard game winner in his first NFL game against the Carolina Panthers. Unfortunately for York, that was the pinnacle of his Browns career. After struggling through a tumultuous preseason this summer, he was ultimately released.
It was a move that the Browns had to make because it was only going to get more difficult for York. It is one thing to kick in August in ideal conditions, but the Browns hope to be competitive late in the season as the frigid December winds of the north coast bear down. Did the Browns make a mistake by picking York? Signs point to yes.
Thomas Dimitroff and Eric Eager discuss why drafting kickers is so unsuccessful pic.twitter.com/R1KJRLpQ4H
— SumerSports (@sumersports) August 29, 2023
The NFL is not a league where you are always afforded the opportunity to learn on the job. In a place like Cleveland (and the entire AFC North), you need a kicker that has years of experience kicking in all different types of situations and weather. Not only is weather a factor in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, but the grass does not grow as well as it does in Baton Rouge or Athens. You must have experience and a rolodex of kicks in all types of scenarios to find success on these fields. It is a lot to expect a 22-year-old that kicked in the mild south to nail a 45-yarder off messy, muddy grass into a cutting wind.
So, what did the Browns do after they released York? They went out and signed 32-year-old veteran Dustin Hopkins. Hopkins has had some injuries, does not have the leg strength that York has, and has not been an All-Pro, but he is capable and has the experience that you need to kick in the AFC North.
The Browns feel like they are a team that is close to a breakthrough and can play in the postseason. To win a playoff game in Cleveland, you are going to need to make a game winning field goal in cold, windy weather. York may make a kick like that in a few years, but he appears not ready to do so just yet.
Dustin Hopkins, welcome to Cleveland.