Controversy: Are punters, kickers NFL-draft worthy?

Aug 8, 2015; Canton, OH, USA; Ray Guy during the 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 8, 2015; Canton, OH, USA; Ray Guy during the 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Chiefs’ placekicker Harrison Butker made an impression in 2023 by making 33 of 35 field goals. Last week, he made quite an impression at Benedictine College, where Butker, shall we say, pushed his commencement speech wide right.


Controversy and kickers are not new bedfellows, in or out of football. Recall that Chris Kluwe became a lightning rod a decade ago for taking a stand on gay rights and same-sex marriage, and now Butker joins the ex-Viking punter in stoking a larger culture clash between “woke” lefties and those embracing a reactionary populism.


But let’s get back to football, where these specialists managed to create their own brand of controversy.


For the most part, kickers and punters are spared a spotlight that does not involve a shanked punt or a missed field goal. But there is one other off-the-field forum where the mere mention of a kicker or punter’s name can send fans and media into fits of bewilderment. 


And that is the NFL draft. 


Since the NFL's annual spring gala butters our bread here at NFL Draft Scout, the firestorm involving Butker — himself a Round 7 pick in 2017 — started us thinking about controversial selections of kickers and punters in past NFL drafts.


Let’s note that reactions to the 2024 draft may become yet another example. Iowa’s All-American Tory Taylor, who went to the Bears in the fourth round (No. 122 overall), was the first specialist off the board — and the only punter taken in the draft. Then, in Round 6, came a run on placekickers: ‘Bama’s Will Reichard (Vikings), Stanford’s Joshua Karty (Rams), and Arkansas’s Cam Little all went within nine picks (Nos. 203, 209, and 212, respectively). 


History will declare whether they will create controversy, but after scouring past drafts, we found several NFL teams dared to draft a kicker or punter. We present six here whom we think were the most eyebrow-raising selections of kickers/punters in NFL draft history.


6. Jake Moody, 2023 (third round)


Forty-Niners fans are still barking about this decision and likely will be until Moody makes his fifth Super Bowl game-winning kick. The team spent a third-round spot in 2023 on the ex-Wolverine — just the second kicker selected in the first 100 picks since 2016 — who left Michigan as the most accomplished kicker in school history. 


As expected, the decision to reach for a kicker was immediately questioned by fans and media alike. Wouldn’t Moody have been there in the later rounds? Didn’t San Francisco GM John Lynch have more pressing needs to address? 


Every kick Moody missed during his rookie season only intensified the skepticism. He missed a 41-yard game-winner in Cleveland, resulting in San Francisco’s first setback of 2023. In the Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs, he had an extra point blocked, though he did nail a clutch 53-yarder late in regulation to give the 49ers a brief lead. 


The jury is still out on the young kicker. We predict the 49ers fanbase will undergo mood-y swings with his makes and misses for several seasons to come.


5. Steve Little, 1978 (Round 1); John Lee, 1986 (Round 2) 


We’re pairing these two picks since, taken together, they illustrate the singular incompetence of Bill Bidwell’s ownership of the then St. Louis Cardinals, which in the late ‘70s and 1980s contended for the NFL’s most poorly run franchise.


With the No. 15 overall pick in the 1978 draft, the Cardinals drafted Little (no relation to Cam Little), a booming leg from Arkansas who kicked an NCAA record 67-yard field goal (later equaled by Texas’ Russell Erxleben). It was a different story as a pro. The St. Louis native struggled mightily, going 13 of 27 on field goals before the Cardinals released him after the 1980 season.


So what did St. Louis do just six years later? They doubled down and took UCLA placekicker John Lee with the first pick of the second round (No. 32 overall). 


Lee enjoyed a brilliant career as a Bruin, a three-time All-American who played in three Rose Bowls and set several NCAA kicking marks. But he flopped as an NFL performer. Lee did not have a powerful leg, and his short kickoffs frustrated then-head coach Gene Stallings. He also made 8-of-13 attempts in his lone NFL season. 


Lee does hold the distinction of being the first Korean-American to play in the NFL, but his legacy is that of yet another college kicker from that era unable to make the transition from kicking off a tee to doing so from the ground. (The NCAA abolished using tees on field goals and PATs in 1989.) 


4. Ray Guy, 1973 (first round)


This list includes more than flops, failures, and busts.


For anyone old enough to see Ray Guy in action, it is hard to fathom that his selection in the first round (No. 23 overall) drew criticism from those in and covering the NFL.


Other punters ended up with higher career averages, but none surpassed Guy in both substance and form. There are the images of him finishing off a punt in full Ziegfeld Follies extension, kicking foot above his head, after launching one of his magisterial trajectories that pretty much invented the concept of hang time.


His career average of 42.4 (14 seasons) was tamped down by a high-powered Raiders offense that rarely went three and out. Guy was often tasked with pinning teams inside the 20 — and he did so brilliantly, using an old form of directional kicking known as the “coffin corner,” which had Guy pointing his kicks towards the sidelines. 


He was hands down the greatest NFL punter ever, no matter what ex-punter and former Aaron Rodgers enabler Pat McAfee says.


Guy was also a terrific all-around athlete. At Southern Miss, in addition to being the nation’s best punter, he earned All-American honors at safety (eight INTs his senior season) and kicked a 61-yard field goal. He also pitched on the baseball team, collecting 266 strikeouts in 200 innings and posting a no-hitter.


At Thomson High School (Ga.), he played safety, punter (49.7-yard average as senior), kicker, and tailback while winning two Class A State championships. After the 1968 title football game, he played on Thomson High’s basketball team the next day and scored 39 points without practice. He also was on the track team, but there is no truth to the rumor that he punted the shot putt. All this athleticism was showcased in one play during the biggest showcase in sports, Super Bowl XVIII. His leaping one-handed snag of a high snap in the Raiders’ Super Bowl XVIII win over Washington is legendary. Later, just before halftime, he pinned Washington on its own 12-yard line, setting up Jack Squirek’s interception return of a Joe Theismann pass that broke the game open.


Enshrined in both the NFL and college football Halls of Fame, Guy’s value as a first-round pick is beyond dispute. Not only is he the greatest punter or kicker ever taken within the first 100 selections of a draft, some consider him one of the steals of NFL draft history. As noted football historian Joe Horrigan once observed, “He's the first punter you could look at and say, 'He won games.’”


3. Sebastian Janikowski, 2000 (first round)


Janikowski’s value doesn’t rival Ray Guy’s as a first-round gamble, but if ever an NFL kicker embodied the Raider mystique (both good and questionable), it’s the guy once nicknamed “the Polish Cannon.”


The No. 17 overall pick of the 2000 draft did possess a tremendous leg. While at Florida State, he twice won the Lou Groza Award as college football’s best placekicker. Though off-the-field issues at Tallahassee likely hurt his draft stock with some NFL teams, Oakland was not one of them.  


On the field, “Seabass” could be prodigious. For a short time, he was the highest-paid kicker in the NFL and made the Pro Bowl following the 2011 season. During that season, he kicked a franchise-best six field goals against Chicago and made a record-tying 63-yard field goal in Denver. He also blasted a 61-yarder against Cleveland in 2009. 


But perhaps the one indelible memory of Janikowski’s career is his role as unwitting middleman in a high-stakes feud between Raiders boss Al Davis and Lane Kiffin. In a 2008 game against San Diego, the soon-to-be Raiders head coach sent the big kicker on for a ridiculous 76-yard field goal attempt. Either Kiffin was, as many believe, thumbing his nose at Davis, or he had drastically overestimated the thump in Janikowski’s left foot. (The kick failed to reach the end zone.)  


Janikowski played one year with the Seahawks in 2018, before retiring after 19 NFL seasons.


2. Roberto Aguayo, 2016 (second round)


Joining Jake Moody as the only other kicking specialist selected in top 100 since 2016 (No. 59 overall), Aguayo is a cautionary tale of what damage the pro game can do a great collegiate kicker’s confidence. At Florida State, Aguayo enjoyed a three-year college career that was nothing short of awesome, making 69-of-78 field goals and all 198 extra points. He finished as the third most accurate kicker in NCAA history, won the Lou Groza Award in 2013, and was so highly regarded that he bypassed his senior season to enter the 2016 draft. 


But as with most of the place kickers in this piece, Aguayo struggled out of the gate: He made 22-of-31 field goals in 2016, which was the worst percentage among rookie kickers that season. Tampa cut Aguayo after he missed two kicks in the Bucs’ first preseason game in 2017, with the dismissal caught on HBO’s Hard Knocks in all its unforgiving and soulless finality. For the next few years, Aguayo bounced around from team to team — in 2018, he was picked up the San Diego Chargers, enjoyed a perfect preseason (including 3-of-3 on field goals) but still lost out to Caleb Sturgis. 


So dizzying was Aguayo’s downfall from "the most promising kicking prospect this century" that another HBO program, Real Sports, dedicated a segment to detailing it. In a 2019 interview, the kicker conceded that he fell pray to the “yips” during his time in Tampa and approached ex-NFL kickers and a "mental coach" for help. Even after Aguayo's last NFL go-round as a member of the Pats’ practice squad in 2021 failed to land him a job, ESPN listed him on its “Special Teams Mt. Rushmore” of college kicking specialists, joining fellow Seminole Sebastian Janikowski.


As for the Rushmore of biggest draft busts in team history, Bucs fans might begin with Aguayo and stop chiseling there.


1. Russell Erxleben, 1979 (first round)


Back in the early 1980s, someone reportedly asked Russell Erxleben, the No. 11 overall pick of the 1979 draft, whether he would want to kick a 32-yard field goal to win a game, or a 50-yarder. 


“A 50-yarder,” Erxleben supposedly replied. “Less pressure. Miss a 32-yarder, I would catch a lot more hell.”


And that’s all you need to know about Russell Erxleben and his NFL career as a kicker.


The New Orleans Saints finished off the 1970s with a first-round selection that seemed to indicate why they were the NFL’s worst franchise of that decade. True, Erxleben was a phenomenal college placekicker, who doubled as the nation’s premier punter. In 1977, he tied Steve Little’s NCAA record with a 67-yard field goal against Rice (kicking off a tee) and averaged 45 yards per punt over three college seasons. 


But his NFL career started off horribly — against Atlanta, in his first-ever game, he threw a game-winning pick-six following a bad punt snap — and never got much better. He suffered a season-ending injury the following week and was eventually replaced that season by Garo Yepremian, one of the top placekickers of the ‘70s, who went undrafted, and who also experienced a special teams gaffe of some renown.


As a placekicker, Erxleben made four field goals on just eight career attempts. Over five NFL seasons, he averaged 40.5 yards per punt before the Saints released him in 1984.


The only thing worse than New Orleans’ first-round investment in Erxleben was the former kicker’s post-NFL career as an investor. Labeled “the most hated man in New Orleans Saints history,” Erxleben twice went to prison for securities fraud or money laundering.


By comparison, Scott Norwood and Blair Walsh never had it so good. 

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