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Super Bowl 44 thoughts

Here are thoughts on the Saints’ 31-17 victory over the Colts in Super Bowl 44.

*Sean Payton pitched a perfect game for the Saints in the coaching department. A lot of times, we pound on coaches for bad game-management decisions, but Payton was spot on in this game. His decision to go for it on fourth-and-goal in the second quarter didn’t pay off with a touchdown, but the Saints still got a field goal before the half based on field position, and more importantly they kept Peyton Manning from mounting a two-minute drill drive. Then the onside kick to start off the second half obviously was a huge gamble that paid off by giving the Saints their first lead. Payton also correctly challenged on the two-point conversion in the fourth quarter. That’s a strong performance from a coach who wasn’t afraid to lose and instead played to win.
*Jim Caldwell, meanwhile, made the game’s crucial mistake by attempting a 51-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. When you think of trying a 51-yarder with a 42-year-old kicker, it just sounds like a bad idea, and even though Matt Stover had hit 16 straight postseason kicks, he barely got the kick there. It seemed like there was a 30 percent chance, tops, of that kick making it. An incomplete pass would have saved the Colts seven yards, and a punt could have buried the Saints deep and perhaps taken the aggressiveness out of Payton and Drew Brees. In a game that didn’t have a turnover or a play longer than 27 yards until Tracy Porter’s late interception return, that missed field goal was a huge turnaround.
*Obviously, Drew Brees had an epic performance in the game, completing 18-of-19 passes at one point and finishing 32-of-39 for 288 yards. In a game without big plays, accuracy is what kept drives moving, and Brees was just a little better than Peyton Manning in this game. That’s not to say Manning was bad, because he was at least good. But Brees put together a great performance.
*Again, in a game where there was only one turnover and just 64 penalty yards combined, mistakes that are usually smaller like dropped passes played a much bigger role. Marques Colston’s drop in the first quarter slowed the Saints down, while Pierre Garcon’s drop in the second quarter seemed to stymie the Colts’ momentum for a whole quarter. Garcon has a ton of talent, and he had a productive game with 5 catches for 66 yards and a touchdown. But the young receiver had two key mistakes in that drop and then the fourth-quarter offensive pass interference that really hurt his team. Those mistakes loomed large in this one.
*Before the game, I tweeted that I saw a game with more running and more of a grind-it-out affair. And while my Pierre Thomas as MVP prediction didn’t come through, Thomas was important with 85 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. For the Saints, the grind-it-out came as they dumped the ball off time after time instead of taking bigger shots deep. For the Colts, they relied on Joseph Addai, who had a big game with 135 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. Addai was the Colts’ best offensive player in the game.
*Dwight Freeney had the game’s only sack, and while he didn’t make a huge impact it was good to see that injury didn’t keep him from playing or limit him to the point that he’ll regret how he could have played. But the Colts’ best defensive player was Gary Brackett, who had 12 solo tackles and the key fourth-and-goal stop in the second quarter.
*Thomas Morstead was the crazy kicker of the Super Bowl with his terrific surprise onside kick, but Garrett Hartley deserves props for becoming the first kicker in Super Bowl history to make three field goals of 40 yards or more in a Super Bowl. It’s interesting to consider how both of these teams had kicking decisions to make late in the season. The Saints went with the young Hartley over veteran John Carney, and that paid off in both the NFC championship game and the Super Bowl. The Colts went with Stover over Adam Vinatieri, and Stover missed (in a tough spot).

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RP: Building philosophies

As we analyze the NFL’s final four, we thought we’d look at the most significant building philosophy of each remaining team. This was Chase’s idea put through a little bit of a filter. It’s interesting to see that there’s not just one way to build a team, as you’ll see below.

Indianapolis Colts
Key strategy: Second day of the draft – Obviously, Peyton Manning is the key acquisition for the Colts, and he was the first overall pick in the draft. But with so many guys paid so much money, building depth on the second day of the draft is crucial. And the Colts have done this with OTs Charlie Johnson and Ryan Diem, WRs Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie, LB Clint Session, S Antoine Bethea, and DE Robert Mathis are all second-day draft picks who have developed into above-average players. Bethea and Mathis are even more than that – among the better players at their positions in the league. Those reinforcements are complimented by rookie free agents like CB Jacob Lacey, DT Antonio Johnson, and an all-time classic, C Jeff Saturday, who has emerged as a Pro Bowl center despite not being drafted.
Significant strategy: First-round hits – Manning, DE Dwight Freeney, WR Reggie Wayne, and TE Dallas Clark are all premium players – that’s an incredible hit record. RB Joseph Addai isn’t at that superstar level, but he’s a very good player too.
Key waiver pickups: OG Ryan Lilja, DT Daniel Muir – Lilja started all 16 games at left guard this year, while Muir has emerged as a key player in the DT rotation this year.
Least significant strategy: Signing free agents – The only unrestricted free agent signee currently on the Colts’ roster is PK Adam Vinatieri, and he’s not even active. The Colts scour the market for castoffs, not for high-dollared players, because they do such a good job of hitting on superstars in the first round. They have no players acquired by trade either. It’s all about the draft and rookie free agents for the Colts.

Minnesota Vikings
Key strategy: Big splash – No team in the NFL has tried to make more big splashes than the Vikings. Signing Brett Favre is the latest example, but there are many others – OG Steve Hutchinson, the highest-paid guard in league history at the time; CB Antoine Winfield, who was a big-dollar signing from the Bills back in 2004; and DE Jared Allen, who was the prize in a huge trade with Kansas City last offseason. Those big splashes seem a bit strange in a medium market like Minnesota, but they’ve gone a long way toward giving the Vikings a corps of superstars.
Significant strategy: Draft success – Like the Colts, the Vikings have done a good job on the first day of the draft, finding stars like RB Adrian Peterson, DT Kevin Williams, and WRs Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin and stalwarts like LB Chad Greenway, CB Cedric Griffin, TE Jim Kleinsasser, and OTs Bryant McKinnie and Phil Loadholt.
Key free-agent signings: Free agency –  The Vikes have hit not just on the big splashes but on other free-agent signings like DT Pat Williams, TE Visanthe Shiancoe, RB Chester Taylor, S Madieu Williams, and PK Ryan Longwell. Those guys are important players who, in the case of Williams and Shiancoe, have become important contributors to the team’s core group.

New Orleans Saints
Key strategy: Free agency – The Saints signed QB Drew Brees in free agency, and that in itself is reason to make this the key strategy for the team. The Brees signing was the most important free-agent signing of the last decade and will end being on par with Green Bay’s signing of Reggie White as an all-time signing if Brees eventually leads the Saints to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. But Brees isn’t the only key free-agent signing by the Saints – S Darren Sharper and CB Jabari Greer were significant upgrades to the Saints’ secondary this offseason that made a huge difference throughout the season and last week, and LB Scott Fujita has been a great low-cost signing since he joined the team in 2006.
Significant strategy: Draft – Not only have the Saints found premium players early in the draft – RB Reggie Bush, DT Sedrick Ellis, DE Will Smith, DE Charles Grant, and WR Robert Meachem were all first-round picks, and S Roman Harper and CB Tracy Porter were second-rounders. All play key roles. But the Saints have also found value in the mid-rounds with OG Jahri Evans and OT Jermon Bushrod, and they made one of the best seventh-round picks of all time in WR Marques Colston.
Key trade acquisitions: LB Jonathan Vilma, LB Scott Shanle, TE Jeremy Shockey – Vilma is an impact player, and Shanle is a starter. Shockey provides another key target when he can stay healthy.

New York Jets
Key strategy: Trading up on draft day – The Jets traded up in the draft to acquire of their most important players: QB Mark Sanchez, CB Darrelle Revis, and ILB David Harris. Revis is the Jets’ best player, and Harris is the best player in a stacked linebacker corps. and Sanchez is a key part of the future as well. In addition, playoff revelation Shonn Greene was acquired via trade-up in the third round of the ’09 draft. The aggressiveness that Mike Tannenbaum has shown on draft day has paid off in big ways for Gang Green.
Significant strategy: Free agency  – The Jets have a ton of high-profile free agents – LB Bart Scott and S Jim Leonhard this year joined guys like OLB Calvin Pace, OG Alan Faneca, and OT Damien Woody. All are vital players for this team.
Key draft picks: C Nick Mangold, OT D’Brickashaw Ferguson, TE Dustin Keller, WR Jerricho Cotchery – Mangold, a late first-rounder, is the best center in the league right now, and Keller has been one of the team’s best offensive weapons in the offseason.
Key trade acquisitions: RB Thomas Jones, WR Braylon Edwards, CB Lito Sheppard – Jones has paid off big for the Jets, while Edwards and Sheppard have had their moments more inconsistenly since joining the Jets this season.

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Jersey Numbers: Punters and Kickers

Over the next several weeks, we’re going to look at several different positions (I can’t yet promise all) to identify the best players wearing each jersey number at each position. If this goes as planned, we’ll then compile a list of the best player wearing each jersey number in the league.

If you have quibbles, or want to add someone I forgot, leave a comment and we’ll update this post. And please have patience – this is a big job.

We started this project with wide receivers in this post and then with tight ends in this post and quarterbacks in this post and running backs in this post and offensive linemen in this post. Now we move to kickers and punters, who wear numbers between 1 and 19, although the vast majority sport single numbers.

1 – PK Neil Rackers, Cardinals – Rackers hasn’t shown off the big leg he featured earlier in his career, but he has developed into a consistent threat on field goals. He gets the nod over Dallas’ Mat McBriar, a supersolid punter. Other notable 1s: Pat McAfee, Colts; Matt Turk, Texans

2 – P Dustin Colquitt, Chiefs – He doesn’t get much credit, but Colquitt may be the NFL’s best punter not named Shane Lechler. With 31 punts inside the 20 vs. just four touchbacks, and with an incredibly low average return rate of just 5.2 yards, it’s no wonder that Colquitt is second in the NFL in net punting with a 41.9-yard average. We give him the nod over good placekickers like David Akers of Philly, Mason Crosby of Green Bay, and Rob Bironas of Tennessee. Other notable 2s: Brandon Fields, Dolphins; Nick Harris, Lions; Reggie Hodges, Browns

3 – PK Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots – Gostkowski has developed into a solid clutch field goal kicker as well as a strong kickoff specialist. It’s rare to find a single kicker who does both jobs so well. Other notable 3s: Kris Brown, Texans; Josh Brown, Rams; John Carney, Saints; Jeff Reed, Steelers; Jay Feely, Jets; Matt Stover, Colts; Adam Podlesh, Jaguars; Hunter Smith, Redskins; Matt Bryant, Falcons

4 – P Andy Lee, 49ers – Lee is another underrated punter with terrific averages both gross and net. He gets the nod over long-time placekickers Jason Hanson of Detroit, John Kasay of Carolina, and Adam Vinatieri of Indianapolis, who has missed much of the season. Other notable 4s: Sam Koch, Ravens; Brad Maynard, Bears; Phil Dawson, Browns

5 – P Mike Scifres, Chargers – Scifres’ numbers don’t completely reflect it, but he can be a game-changing punter, as he showed in San Diego’s playoff win over Indianapolis last season. Other notable 5s: Dan Carpenter, Dolphins; Garrett Hartley, Saints; Rhys Lloyd, Panthers; Matt Prater, Broncos; Ben Graham, Cardinals; Donnie Jones, Rams; Chris Kluwe, Vikings

6 – PK Joe Nedney, 49ers – There aren’t dominant kickers or punters at this number, so we’ll give the nod to Nedney, who has long been a solid kicker with a big leg. The fact that he’s about the funniest kicker I ever interviewed doesn’t hurt either. Other notable 6s: Nick Folk, Cowboys; Ryan Succop, Chiefs; Shaun Suisham, Redskins; Chris Hanson, Patriots; Brett Kern, Titans; Thomas Morstead, Saints; Sav Rocca, Eagles

7 – P Jason Baker, Panthers – Few kickers wear this number, so Baker, who isn’t having his best season but has been solid in his time in Carolina, gets the nod. Other notable 7s: Jeremy Kapinos, Packers; Billy Cundiff, Ravens

8 – PK Ryan Longwell, Vikings – Longwell has long been one of the NFL’s most reliable kickers, and he’s 18-for-19 on field goals this year, including 2-of-2 from 50-plus. That gives him a slight nod over Buffalo P Brian Moorman. Other notable 8: Dirk Johnson, Buccaneers

9 – P Shane Lechler, Raiders – Lechler is on his way to a record-setting season. As Bill Simmons pointed out on Friday, Lechler has a chance to break the single-season record of 51.4 yards per punt (held by Hall of Fame QB Slingin’ Sammy Baugh). Lechler is currently averaging 51.7, and his net average of 44.7 yards is nearly three yards better than the single-season record, which Lechler already holds. He’s the best punter in the league and might be the best punter ever. Other notable 9s: Josh Bidwell, Buccaneers; Michael Koenen, Falcons; Jon Ryan, Seahawks; Daniel Sepulveda, Steelers; Steven Weatherford, Jets; Robbie Gould, Bears; Rian Lindell, Bills; Lawrence Tynes, Giants

10 – PK Nate Kaeding, Chargers – Kaeding has had his playoff problems, but he’s been a reliable regular-season producer. That gives him the nod over Seattle’s Olindo Mare, who is having a good season but has been inconsistent in recent years. Other notable 10s: Connor Barth, Buccaneers; Josh Scobee, Jaguars; Kevin Huber, Bengals

11 – PK Sebastian Janikowski, Raiders – The kicker also known as Sea Bass (think Dumb and Dumber) has a powerful leg and has the distinction of being one of the very few kickers to be a first-round pick in the NFL draft.

15 – P Craig Hentrich, Titans – Hentrich hasn’t played this season, but we’ll recognize his strong career as a punter in Green Bay and Tennessee here. Other notable 15: Dave Zastudil, Browns

17 – PK Shayne Graham, Bengals – Graham has developed into one of the most solid kickers around. Although his consistency this season has been lacking, Graham remains a good threat for Cincy. Other notable 17: Mitch Berger, Broncos

18 – P Jeff Feagles, Giants – Feagles has been punting in the NFL forever, but he still has a roster spot. He’s one of the few practicioners of the art of directional punting left in the league as well. Other notable 18: David Buehler, Cowboys

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Week 5 moves

We do a weekly update on major NFL transactions. We include signings, releases, and also players who are put on injured reserve, because they are lost for the year. You can check out the Week 4 transactions here and work your way back through the season.

Additions

Packers (add OT Mark Tauscher) – We detailed our thoughts on the Tauscher signing in this post. The Packers put CB Will Blackmon on injured reserve with a knee injury to make room for Tauscher.

Patriots (add LB Junior Seau) – We detailed our thoughts on the Seau signing in this post. The Patriots cut DL Terdell Sands, whom they signed a few weeks ago, to make room for Seau on the roster.

Ravens (add WR David Tyree, cut TE Tony Curtis) – The Ravens, still looking for receiver and special-teams help, added Super Bowl 42 hero Tyree. Tyree is not a great player, but he was an above-average one before his ’08 injury. If he is healthy, he can help.

Cowboys (add CB-RS Allen Rossum) – Rossum has long been a dangerous return man, but he doesn’t really help much anywhere else. That’s why the 49ers cut him, but the Cowboys are bringing him in, in search of a spark.

Buccaneers (add DE Michael Bennett and WR Yamon Figurs) – The Buccaneers need talent, and Bennett, who was cut by the Seahawks because of their offensive line numbers crunch, is an upgrade. The fact that the Steelers also put in a claim vouches for the fact that there is potential there. Figurs hasn’t made an impact as a receiver, but he has return skills that the Bucs are lacking. A terrible team like Tampa needs to churn the bottom half of its roster looking for a diamond in the rough, and that’s what they’re doing here.

Seahawks (add OT Damion McIntosh) – Seattle can’t seem to keep its left tackles healthy. After Week 5, the Seahawks lost Brandon Frye for the season with a neck injury, and they had to play with Kyle Williams even though Williams had a sprained knee. This was after Walter Jones and Sean Locklear were already sidelined. So the Seahawks added McIntosh, a veteran who started for Kansas City last year but was cut just before the season this year. At the least, he’s a serviceable fill-in until Jones and/or Locklear can return.

Colts (add PK Matt Stover) – With Adam Vinatieri likely sidelined for at least 5 games with a knee injury, the Colts needed a kicker. They went for a veteran in Stover, who has limited range but showed tremendous accuracy during his long career in Baltimore.

Titans (add CB Rod Hood) – Hood, who started the Super Bowl for the Cardinals last year, has bounced around all offseason. Now he lands in Tennessee, where the Titans hope he can do something to improve a secondary that has been atrocious. Hood isn’t a long-term answer, but he could still end up being a minor upgrade. That’s how sad things have gotten in Tennessee.

Texans (add OG Tutan Reyes) – After putting starting OG Mike Brisiel on injured reserve on injured reserve with a hurt left foot, the Texans brought in Reyes, a massive veteran who can fill in inside. Offensive line continues to be a trouble spot for the Texans, so it’ll be interesting to see if Reyes helps.

Raiders (add OT Langston Walker) – The Raiders brought back Walker, who was most recently with the Bills but who played with Oakland from 2002-06. Walker is massive and can help as a right tackle, especially in the running game, but he’s not a long-term answer.

Bills (add LB Chris Draft) – The Bills put two linebackers, starter Kawika Mitchell and Marcus Buggs, on injured reserve with knee injuries, and MLB Paul Pozluszny is still out with an injury as well. So they desperately needed linebacker help and they get it in Draft, a solid veteran who can play any LB spot in the 4-3. He’s not a big playmaker, but he can help.

Chiefs (add LB Justin Rogers) – Rogers, who spent the last two years in Dallas as a backup and special-teams guy, comes in in an effort to upgrade the Chiefs’ depth.

Subtractions

Steelers (put DE Aaron Smith on IR) – Smith hasn’t made a Pro Bowl, but he’s considered one of the league’s best 3-4 defensive ends because he’s so good against the run and can also generate a little juice on pass rushes. His absence may be as big of a blow to the Steelers front 7 as Troy Polamalu’s injury has been to the team’s secondary over the past month. With Smith out, rookie Ziggy Hood needs to step up and provide a spark in more playing time. The Steelers signed DL Ra’shon Harris from Carolina’s practice squad to fill Smith’s roster spot and to provide DL depth.

Chargers (cut S Clinton Hart) – Hart had started at safety for the Chargers for two-plus seasons, but San Diego leadership wanted to shake up a struggling D, and Hart was the first sacrificial lamb. To take his roster spot, the Chargers brought back Ian Scott, a defensive lineman who played in four games for the team last year. Scott will try to help replace Jamal Williams in the middle of the Chargers’ front line.

Colts (cut DT Ed Johnson) – Johnson, whom the Colts cut last year after his marijuana-possession arrest, came back this year and actually started the first four games. But Indy axed Johnson again, citing his on-field performance. His weight may have also been an issue, but it’s curious to see a contender cut a starter like this when there’s so little defensive-line talent available on the open market.

Bengals (cut LS Brad St. Louis) – The Bengals finally gave on St. Louis, who has had all kinds of trouble long-snapping this year. Four bad snaps in Week 5 alone led to two blocked field goals and a blocked extra point, and St. Louis’ errant snaps also cost the Bengals four other points earlier in the year. To replace St. Louis, Cincy added ex-Texan snapper Clark Harris.

Lions (put CB Eric King on IR) – King’s injured shoulder ended his year, and the injury is a blow to a Lions secondary that’s already suspect. King has been the team’s primary nickelback thus far this season, and Detroit’s subpar depth means they will have trouble replacing him.

Dolphins (put RB Patrick Cobbs on IR) – Cobbs was the Dolphins’ third running back, but he got more than the usual share of playing time for that role because he figured into the Wildcat scheme. So his knee injury is a bigger blow than it appears to be for the Dolphins. To replace Cobbs, the Dolphins promoted Kory Sheets from the practice squad.

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FR: Clutch kickers

If you’re paying attention to Football Relativity, you know that we have a bit of an obsession with kickers. From our Crazy Kicker of the Week award to the songs of kickers that are constantly running through our head, we spend way too much time considering the status of these soccer-stylers. (I blame my days writing the kicker reports for Pro Football Weekly‘s fantasy football preview mag.) Since we’re thinking about them, we thought we’d use a Football Relativity comparison to assess the most clutch and least dependable placekickers in the league. The 10 level is for the kicker you’d want taking the game-winning kick in the Super bowl; the 1 level is for a kicker you wouldn’t trust to keep you out of overtime in the preseason.

10 – Adam Vinatieri, Colts – Vinatieri is the gold standard of clutch in the league, since he’s made not one but two Super Bowl-winning kicks. From the time he made a 45-yarder in the snow to advance the Patriots in the 2001 playoffs, he’s been almost automatic in the biggest moments. In fact, he didn’t miss a potential game-winning fourth-quarter kick between 1999 and 2007, an amazing string of clutchness. He’s still the best.

9 – Ryan Longwell, Vikings – Longwell has long been well above average as an NFL kicker. (I have long been well intentioned but susceptible to bad puns.) But he’s still at the top of his game, as he proved by kicking three game-winners and hitting all 6 of his attempts from 50-yards plus. The career 82 percent kicker is still one of the best.

9 (con’t) – Robbie Gould, Bears – Gould’s most famous kick was a 49-yarder in overtime that won a playoff game against the Seahawks three seasons ago. That’s an impressive achievement in the wintry, windy conditions of Soldier Field. He has an 86 percent success rate in his four-year career, which speaks even more about his ability. The fact that Gould made the one big money kick he’s tried so far indicates that his clutch ability is pretty strong.

9 (con’t) – Josh Brown, Rams – Brown was incredibly clutch when he was in Seattle, making two famous game-winners from 50-yards-plus. He’s still as clutch as he ever was – his 49-yard game-winner against Washington last year proves it – but he doesn’t have as many clutch chances as he once did. But kicking indoors will allow Brown to keep his range, and his 19-of-30 success rate on 50-plus yarders shows that Brown is an elite kicker in the league.

9 (con’t) – Shayne Graham, Bengals – Graham bounced around the league before finding a home with Cincinnati in 2003, but since then he has been one of the most accurate kickers in the league. He’s made 87.5 percent of his tries as a Bengal, which is a remarkable rate of consistency. He has three career game-winners and is 7-for-14 from 50-yards plus. And he’s done this in a city where the winter weather creates adverse kicking conditions. If Graham played on a better team, more of us would know how clutch he is, but the one-time Pro Bowler and current Bengals franchise player is among the very best in the league.

8 – Jeff Reed, Steelers – Reed hit the first game-winner of the 2009 season in overtime against the Titans, and he has proven to be a solid kicker in his eight years in Pittsburgh. He’s hit nearly 83 percent of his career field goals and has one playoff game-winner as well. He doesn’t have a howitzer for a leg, but in maybe the NFL’s toughest stadium to kick in, Reed continually makes the big ones.

8 (con’t) – Jason Hanson, Lions – Hanson has spent his entire 18-year career with the Lions, and as such he’s been a forgotten kicker in recent years. But he’s an 82 percent career kicker who still has a big leg, as he proved by making 8-of-8 tries from 50-plus-yards last year. Hanson hasn’t had a lot of pressure kicks recently, but his performance elsewhere shows that he still has the chops to make those big kicks.

8 (con’t) – Jason Elam, Falcons – Elam has long had one of the league’s biggest legs, as he proved by tying the NFL record with a 63-yarder in 1998, and he had a streak of 30 straight field goals into last season. Elam got off to a rough start this season, but his career 81 percent average and 60-plus percent rate from 50-yards-plus shows that he’s still a great security blanket in the clutch.

8 (con’t) – John Carney, Saints – Carney is 45 years old, but he’s still a quality kicker, as his Pro Bowl campaign last year showed. The fact that he’s connected on 83 percent of his kicks in his now 20-year career shows his reliability. He no longer has eye-popping range, but if you have a pressure 40-yarder, there are few kickers you would want more than Carney.

8 (con’t) – Rob Bironas, Titans – In his five years in Tennessee, Bironas has hit 83 percent of his field goal tries, and he’s also shown late-game chops. He famously had four game-winning kicks in 2005, including a 60-yarder to beat the Colts. He also had eight field goals in a single game against the Texans. Bironas is one of the best young kickers in the league.

7 – Nick Folk, Cowboys – Folk, a third-year kicker, has been extremely consistent for the Cowboys. Last year he hit on 20-of-22 field goal tries, and for his career he’s over 87 percent on kicks. He’s also 5-for-8 career on tries of 50 yards or longer. He’s also made some long game-winning or game-tying kicks, including a 52-yarder that forced overtime against Arizona last year and a 53-yarder to beat Buffalo in a 2007 Monday-night game.

7 (con’t) – Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots – Gostkowski faced the unenviable task of replacing Adam Vinatieri in New England, but he has performed well, going to the Pro Bowl last season. He’s connected on about 85 percent of his career field goals and has a strong leg both on kickoffs and on field goals, and his playoff performance has been solid as well. Gostkowski hasn’t had the moments Vinatieri had so far, but his performance indicates that he’s ready to handle them.

6 – Joe Nedney, 49ers – Of all the kickers I’ve ever interviewed, Nedney was one of my favorites. He’s a huge guy – 6-foot-5 – who has always had leg strength but who took a while to gain consistency. But he has made 88 percent of his field goals since coming to San Fran in ’05, which goes to show that he’s become a dependable guy.

6 (con’t) – Lawrence Tynes, Giants – Tynes is an 80 percent career kicker, and he also made a big-time 47-yard kick in overtime against Green Bay in the NFC championship to put the Giants into the Super Bowl, even though he had missed two shorter field goals earlier in the game. He doesn’t have a huge leg – he hasn’t made a 50-yard-plus field goal since 2006 in Kansas City – and the fact that the Giants chose John Carney over Tynes throughout the 2008 season is a red flag too. But Tynes has established himself as a trustworthy option.

6 (con’t) – John Kasay, Panthers – Kasay has been with Carolina since the franchise took the field in 1995, and by and large he has been a consistent force. He’s shown the ability to make long field goals in the clutch, but he famously failed in a couple of big spots in the Panthers’ lone Super Bowl appearance. He has 12 game-winners in his career, and even approaching age 40 he’s still a good if not great clutch option.

5 – David Akers, Eagles – Akers hit 19 straight postseason field goals before finally missing one in last year’s NFC championship game, which goes to show that he’s ultra-dependable in big spots. He’s a career 80 percent kicker, but last year was his first season in four where he surpassed the 80 percent mark for the year. Akers has a good pedigree, but his numbers are starting to leak, which makes that miss vs. the Cardinals last year loom a little larger. Still, most teams would be happy to ride on Akers’ leg.

5 (con’t) – Phil Dawson, Browns – Dawson is in his 11th season as the Browns’ kicker, and he’s made nearly 83 percent of his kicks in weather that can often be the opposite of kicker-friendly. He also has 11 game-winning kicks in that time. He’s a solid 10-of-15 on tries of 50-yards-plus, which shows he can make those kicks but doesn’t often take them. He’s provided a good comfort level for the Browns over the years.

5 (con’t)- Kris Brown, Texans – Brown, who started his career with the Steelers, has been in Houston since the Texans were born, has 11 career game-winning field goals, including eight with Houston. One of those was a 57-yarder to beat the Dolphins in 2007. His career percentage is just under 80 percent, but he has made 55 percent of his 50-yard-plus attempts. Brown has the chops to make a long field goal in the clutch, but he’s not the sure-fire three-point producer that some other kickers are.

4 – Neil Rackers, Cardinals – Rackers’ career percentage of 77.4 percent isn’t great, but he has a strong leg (19 career 50-plus field goals), and he has one Pro Bowl season in ’05. He made an NFL record 40 field goals that year. In recent years, he’s been a very solid option for the Cards, but he’s never been the ultraconsistent option other kickers are.

4 (con’t) – Mason Crosby, Packers – In his three years in Green Bay, Crosby has shown a big leg that is a little wild at times. He’s completed just under 79 percent of his kicks, which is a percentage lower than most teams would prefer. He does have the ability to hit from deep, making 7-of-12 from 50-yards-plus. He’s a great touchback guy and a long-range threat, but for a clutch 42-yarder there are better options in the league.

4 (con’t) – Dan Carpenter, Dolphins – In his first season last year, Carpenter hit 21-of-25 field goals, including a last-minute game winner vs. Oakland and one 50-yarder. His only misses were from 40 yards and further, which means he was automatic on short-to-midrange tries. His career is off to a good start, but we have a long way to go before we can truly call him clutch. But like Vinatieri, Carpenter was an undrafted free agent found by Bill Parcells, so at least the pedigree is there.

3 – Josh Scobee, Jaguars – Scobee is in his sixth year in Jacksonville, but his success rate on field goals is less than 80 percent, which is not ideal. He did make four 50-yarders last year, which along with his touchback percentage shows his value, and he made back-to-back game-winners early last season. Scobee is the ultimate good but not great NFL kicker who you think can make the big one but who will always leave a shadow of doubt.

3 (con’t) – Sebastian Janikowski, Raiders – The former first-round pick (you read that right) has always had one of the league’s biggest legs, as he showed by making a 57-yard game-winner last year vs. the Jets. But his consistency level has been spotty, as shown by his 77 percent career success rate. Sea-Bass is a great option for long clutch kicks of 55 yards or more, but at more reasonable distances there are many other guys you’d rather have.

3 (con’t) – Jay Feely, Jets – Feely has bounced around a little, but his career accuracy rate is 81.5 percent, and he has five career game-winners. He doesn’t have a big leg, which shows in his scattershot rate on field goals of 40 yards or more (65 percent). So Feely is a dependable guy on the short field goals but not the guy you want taking a long attempt in the clutch.

3 (con’t) – Mike Nugent, Buccaneers – Nugent has three career game-winners, but his career percentage of 79.8 is only average among NFL kickers. Now that he’s in Tampa Bay where the environment is more kicker-friendly, he could up his percentage. But he needs to take advantage of his strong leg by making more of his long attempts before he can be considered a real clutch threat.

3 (con’t) – Olindo Mare, Seahawks – Mare landed in Seattle last year and beat out Brandon Coutu in the race to replace Josh Brown. Mare had a solid season, making 24-of-27 field goals including a game-winner against the Rams. But last year was only the second time since 2002 that Mare made more than 78 percent of his field-goal tries. He has a strong leg for kickoffs but has been scattershot on his longer attempts, making just 18-0f-39 from 50-yards-plus in his career. Mare deserves credit for holding off Coutu two years in a row, but he’s no longer an elite clutch kicker in the NFL.

2 – Nate Kaeding, Chargers – Kaeding has a big leg and great regular-season results (86 percent success rate), but his playoff results are lacking. He missed game-tying tries that eliminated the Chargers in the ’04 and ’05 seasons, and missed in four straight postseason games. So despite the fact that his stats look good, Kaeding isn’t the guy you want taking a clutch kick.

2 (con’t) – Rian Lindell, Bills – Lindell has made his chops as a bad-weather kicker in Buffalo, and he has made 80 percent of his career field-goal tries along with every extra-point he has ever tried. But Lindell’s clutch performance has been less than ideal, which means that there are better options out there.

1 – Matt Prater, Broncos – Since replacing Jason Elam in Denver last year, Prater has showed a big leg with good range, but his consistency is lacking (only 70 percent success rate). He has hit 6-of-7 from 50-plus, which helps, but he’s still someone who needs to prove his clutch chops.

1 (con’t) – Shaun Suisham, Redskins – Suisham struggled last season after performing consistently in his first two years in Washington. His career percentage is just 78 percent, and he missed a 30-yarder in his long playoff game. Suisham could still grow into a consistent kicker, but that consistency has been lacking so far.

1 (con’t) – Steven Hauschka, Ravens – Hauschka replaces long-time Ravens kicker Matt Stover this year because he’s got a longer leg both on kickoffs and field goals. The former N.C. State kicker had two long attempts last year as the kickoff specialist, hitting from 54 and missing from 52, and he’s 1-of-2 thus far this season. But he has a long way to go before he provides a comfort level.

1 (con’t) – Ryan Succop, Chiefs – Succop, who was Mr. Irrelevant in the NFL draft this year, made his first career field goal, a 53-yarder against Baltimore. It remains to be seen how clutch Succop will be, but he is one of the most intriguing to watch because his kicking leg is about three times as muscular as his plant leg. Believe me – it’s hard to stop staring at the difference.

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