Kickers are a little different, so it’s no surprise that scouting them requires a different mindset and approach than other positions. While every-down players are often looked at in terms of how their physical and mental skills fit into various schemes, kickers need to be studied in terms of how these skills allow them to repeat the same kicking process as precisely as possible every time.
While kicking a football is often thought of as one seamless process, there are five key segments that typically indicate whether or not a kicker will have sustainable success. Those five pieces are pre-kick setup, approach, plant step, swing plane, and follow-through. Kickers, much like golfers, pitchers, and quarterbacks, each have a unique rhythm to their swing. While examining a kicker’s routine and mechanics, it is important to remember that the goal is a repeatable process that creates strong results, not simply building the prettiest swing.
Basic placekicking technique teaches a simple three-steps-back, two-steps over approach with the kicker aligning his steps with the center support post. The key here is to ensure proper alignment prior to the start of the approach, as a setup that skews to either the left or the right will throw off mechanics later in the kicking process. Some kickers may use a vertical hand motion to check their alignment at the top of their initial three steps back, but this is not critical to their success here. Rather, the most important thing to see is a consistent path that is pointing directly at the target, regardless of horizontal location on the field, and a set of side steps that is at a 90-degree angle to this path. A kicker could do a backflip at the top of his setup, and as long as it gets him into the right place every time, it is not an issue. Likewise, a kicker could have a simple setup with no wasted motion, but align himself poorly and inconsistently, and this would set himself up for failure later on.
The approach includes the backswing of a kicker’s motion, where he generates the rhythm and energy for his swing. There are two different approaches that are utilized by modern kickers: a two-step approach that starts with the kicking foot; and a two-and-a-half step approach using an initial jab step by the plant foot. While an early criticism of the jab step was that it created too long of an approach, kickers employing this method simply start their motion sooner in order to maintain snap-to-kick times in the 1.2 second range at the NFL level. While my personal style employed a jab step, the key here once again is consistency, as both techniques can be successful if the muscle memory is there. The keys to look for in this area are a pace that remains constant from one kick to the next, as well as consistent stride length so as to not throw off the eventual location of the plant foot.
The plant step is where the real magic happens in a kicker’s motion. While everything before sets the stage, this is where the energy and momentum of the approach is converted into torque that is put through the ball. The location and angle of the plant help to guide both the vertical and horizontal trajectory of the ball, making this the most important part of any kicker’s swing. Generally, most kickers aim to plant with the ball in line with the arch of their foot or just behind the arch with the foot oriented directly through the target. This helps to maintain a downward swing through the ball that generates lift, much like a golfer’s swing. If a plant step is too far forward, a kicker may jam himself and be unable to clear his hips, resulting in lower trajectories and weakened accuracy. If a plant step is too far back, the kicker is likely to spin off the ball, resulting in a slicing trajectory and reduced power. Horizontally, a plant step should typically be anywhere from 6-10 inches from the ball, though individual kickers may have plants that are slightly closer or further from the ball. Once again, the key here is consistency from one kick to the next, as different physiologies may require slightly different techniques in order to maximize a kicker’s talent.
With the advent of soccer-style kicking in the 1960s due to the Gogolak brothers, the leg swing employed by kickers operates on an angled plane, rather than a straight forward-and-back motion. The angle of this plane helps determine several trajectory characteristics. A steeper swing with less rotational force tends to maximize accuracy, as slight variations in the timing of impact play less of a factor on where a kicker’s hips are facing when contact is made. The downside of a steeper swing is that it may result in greater variation in vertical trajectory as a tradeoff, as well as less overall power, caused by less torque generated by the swing. Likewise, a flatter swing and torquier swing may produce more consistent height and greater power, though at the expense of accuracy, as there is less margin for error on the timing of a kicker’s move through the kicking zone. The last several years have seen an influx of kickers with flatter, more torque-oriented swings in the NFL, though accuracy has continued to climb as their overall technique is more refined than previous generations of kickers. All things being equal, a steeper swing plane offers a better platform for the NFL game, but kickers with flatter swings have made huge strides in their accuracy in recent years, minimizing the differences in results between these two camps.
A strong follow-through is critical to maintaining both power and accuracy. A follow-through that is cut short will result in a rapid deceleration of the kicking leg, which could begin even before contact. Proper follow-through allows the leg to explode through the kicking zone, eventually carrying the kicker off his plant foot in what is known as a skip step. The direction and size of the skip-step should be consistent from kick to kick, and it should also allow a kicker to maintain his momentum through the target area well after the kick is away. Inconsistent skip steps reflect a lack of balance and rhythm in a swing, and while results can be maintained for a short time, are generally reflective of a motion that lacks the fine movement to be successful and consistent in the long run.
Repetition, repetition, repetition. This is the key to analyzing any kicker and projecting their future ability. Kicking is not a position where creativity and innovation are at a premium. It is one where the ability to become as close to a robot as possible is critical to success. As such, more than anything else, the ability to repeat the same motion many times with limited variation is the biggest thing to look for in any of these areas. There are always slight wrinkles to each kicker’s technique that make them different. In some cases, there can actually be fairly large differences. But, when examining kickers, consistency in these five segments of their motion will give a tremendous insight into whether they have built a platform that can stand up to the rigors of the NFL game.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.