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Seven out? Ryan Pace is the next shooter as Bears look to the draft for a kicker

LSU kicker Cole Tracy (36) kicks a 42-yard field goal as time expired to beat Auburn 22-21 on Sept. 15 at Auburn. Tracy is one of the top-rated kickers in this year's NFL draft. | AP photo.

The Bears’ search for a kicker moves from off-the-street free agency into the draft phase this week. It’s like taking your craps game from the back alley to the casino: It’s a little more formal and regimented, but the odds are still against you and it’s pretty much just another roll of the dice.

At this point, that’s what general manager Ryan Pace is looking for as he attempts to replace ill-fated Cody Parkey on the Bears’ roster. The Bears have three kickers on their roster — Redford Jones, Chris Blewitt and Elliott Fry — but none has attempted a kick in the NFL, so you know Pace is looking for more this week.

After swinging and missing with Connor Barth and Parkey, Pace’s strategy is that an offseason/training camp/preseason kicking derby will produce a qualified winner. Considering the suspect nature of kickers in the NFL, it’s not the worst plan. None of the top six kickers in field-goal percentage in the NFL last season was with the team he originally signed with. In fact, only six starting kickers in the league were with the team they originally signed with.

‘‘The key word is ‘competition’ at that spot — and doing creative things to make them feel that pressure and that competition,’’ Pace said at the NFL owners meetings in March. ‘‘Because the more we study it and the more we look at kickers around the league . . . there’s so many different angles and avenues how they came into the league and became good kickers. So we’re very open [to] increasing competition.’’

Consider it a good sign that instead of just passing off the Barth and Parkey failures as bad luck at a notoriously unpredictable position, Pace and the personnel staff have redoubled their efforts to find out what they’re doing wrong. The last acute problem Pace addressed that way was the injury situation, and that improved dramatically in 2018. In Pace’s fifth season as the Bears’ GM, two of his strengths are that he acknowledges reality and learns well. So there’s always hope a problem area — be it the head coach, the quarterback or the kicker — will be addressed and improved.

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Pace is aware of just how dicey the draft is when it comes to kickers. In the last 10 years, only two of the 17 drafted kickers lasted more than two full seasons with the team that drafted them: the Rams’ Greg Zuerlein (sixth round in 2012) and the Chiefs’ Ryan Succop (seventh round in 2009). Four of the five kickers drafted in the last two years — Jake Elliott, Harrison Butker, Jason Sanders and Daniel Carlson — finished last season strong, but only Sanders is with the team that drafted him.

It’s hard to know what makes a kicker tick, but one candidate to keep an eye on is LSU’s Cole Tracy. He won the Fred Mitchell Award at Division II Assumption College, where he made big kicks in tough conditions. With scouts wondering if he could kick in front of big crowds, he transferred to LSU and made 29 of 33 field-goal attempts, including a 42-yard game-winner to beat Auburn in front of 86,787 and a 50-yarder in overtime before 101,501 at Texas A&M.

Tracy’s special-teams coach at LSU was Greg McMahon, who, like Pace, is an Eastern Illinois grad. He was a special-teams coach with the Saints when Pace was in their personnel department in 2006-14.

Utah’s Matt Gay has the stronger leg, one of Pace’s priorities in Soldier Field. But even leg strength can be deceiving. Robbie Gould attempted only two field goals of 50 yards or longer in his first four seasons with the Bears. He’s now one of the best long-distance kickers in the game at 29-for-39 (74.4 percent) from 50 yards or more in his last 10 seasons.

They’re kickers. You just never know.