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FRISCO, TX — Often overlooked until they do something wrong, NFL specialists are as important (and sometimes more so) in determining wins and losses as some/any other positions on the roster. It's that very reason the Dallas Cowboys remain hellbent on trying to figure out the situation at kicker, but they've so far been most unsuccessful in doing so, at least from the aspect of discovering one that's worthy of being the long-term successor to Dan Bailey.
They've tried their hand at many, and some on more than one occasion — e.g., Lirim Hajrullahu and Brett Maher — with young talent such as Jonathan Garibay unable to put his stamp on the job. Entering this offseason, it's yet another position of need in Dallas, so let's talk about some options in free agency that could be combined with an April/May grab as well to fix the problem once and for all.
They signed Tristan Vizcaino to the roster as February prepares to become March, but adding the 26-year-old for a second time in three years shouldn't deter them from the options listed below.
At this point, you'd like to believe you know what the Cowboys will get from Maher, only you don't, and that's a large part of the problem. On one hand, he delivered a resurgent season in his third stint with the team, flipping potential losses into wins in the process, and that deserves roses when also considering how uneven the offense was in 2022, leaving the defense and Maher to be the Cool Hand Luke in Dallas.
On the other hand, Maher ended the year on the worst possible note — missing a series of PATs (setting an NFL record in the process) and that conjured memories of his previous stretches in Dallas when he had a mixed bag of record-setting kicks and ones that made you slap your own forehead in frustration. The Cowboys are looking to reset at the position, something they tried to do in 2022 before being forced to call Maher to save training camp.
Jake McQuaide + Matt Overton:
As things get sorted at the kicker position, let's not forget how important the role of long snapper is, the Cowboys having long been spoiled by the greatness of L.P. Ladouceur. Any small error or lack of chemistry between the long snapper and punter (Bryan Anger) could lead to a disastrous play result for the special teams unit, and both McQuaide and Overton did their job very well when called upon.
Overton took over for McQuaide following injury last season and there was no fall-off during the swap, but the latter should be the frontrunner to regain his job as starter for 2023, though the more practical thought should be to re-sign both as insurance this offseason and then make the decision on who wins what once late August arrives, potentially being able to stash one on the practice squad.
This nuclear weapon disguised as a punter is under contract through the 2024 season, so rejoice accordingly.
What's Out There:
Note: These players will be unrestricted on March 15, barring a newly-signed deal with their incumbent team prior to that date.
This is my top pick for several reasons, and that includes the fact he is no stranger to what head coach Mike McCarthy expects on a weekly basis. The two spent considerable time together in their respective stretch with the Packers — 11 seasons in all. Crosby has since become a franchise legend in Green Bay and a likely Hall of Famer. This will be McCarthy's first real crack at landing Crosby outside of Wisconsin and there's no reason he shouldn't make the call.
The 38-year-old probably won't give you another half decade of production, but that's not what you need anyway, if the position is also addressed with [quality] youth that can compete with Crosby in camp or be developed and placed in waiting on the practice squad for 2024 (also learning from Crosby in the process). He doesn't have the leg he once did — struggling beyond 50 yards — but he's still an assassin from 49 yards or fewer (translation: don't settle for long FGs).
Here's a name the Cowboys know quite well, considering it was Gould who recently helped escort them from the NFL playoffs for a second consecutive season. And while Gould loses the edge in age to Crosby (Gould turned 40 in December), he still has the distance on his boot — accurate on five of six attempts from 50 yards or greater over the past two seasons. A former two-time All-Pro, while Gould has resided with the 49ers over the past six seasons, unlike Crosby, he's a traveled veteran (which, to me, says he's open to exploring other opportunities).
An undrafted talent in 2005 by the New England Patriots, Gould hails from Micah Parsons' beloved Penn State (hint) and he's spent time with five NFL teams, including the rival New York Giants prior to heading west to California. He made all eight of his field goal attempts in this year's playoffs, including four against the Cowboys, also making all four of his postseason PATs, proving he's still got the juice.
Landing directly in the middle of Crosby and Gould as far as age goes, the soon-to-be 39-year-old (August) is no stranger to what it takes to be a quality kicker in this league. And if you're wondering if there's still tread left on his tire, the fact delivered his highest accuracy rate (88%) since the 2015 season (91.7%) answers that question. Prater also missed only one PAT in 2022, one year after making 47 of 49 attempts for the Cardinals, having signed in Arizona in 2021.
A former two-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro, Prater helped define what it means to be a long-distance kicker in the NFL. He currently owns the league record for most 50+ yard field goals (70) as well as most PATs made in a single season (75 in 2013), and made five of his six field goal attempts that were 50 yards or greater last season — 11 for 11 out to 39 yards, and 8-for-10 between 40 and 49 yards. In other words, get him on the phone on March 13.
As far as tread life goes, Gay has the most of any notable kicker entering free agency this season. Having spent just four years in the NFL, most of it having been with the Los Angeles Rams, the 28-year-old is entering his first go at the open market and with some serious value, i.e., he'll command the highest dollar of them all. The latter doesn't necessarily mean he'll break the bank, but I'd put his potential cost at somewhere between $4 million to $6 million annually but, for that money, you'd have your kicker for both now and years to come; and that's exactly what the Cowboys so desperately crave.
A former fifth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2019, Gay had a short stay there and with the Colts before doing some very real damage for the Rams, averaging 93.8% on field goal attempts over the past two seasons and missing just two PATs in that same timespan. He's made 11 of his 14 attempts from greater than 50 yards since 2021 and of his 50 attempts below 50 yards in those two seasons, only one (!!) to go along with an XP success mark of 97.5%. Would someone please toss me a bib, because I'm drooling on myself and it's kind of embarrassing.