The New York Jets are set to begin the 2006 campaign with two feet on solid ground. Those feet are Mike Nugent's right foot and Ben Graham's left foot.
Both entering their second season with the Jets, placekicker Nugent, 24, and punter Graham, 32, provide verified strength to Mike Westhoff's special teams. With such proven legs, it's a safe prediction the Jets will pass over these positions in the upcoming draft.
Nugent was the Jets' second round selection (47th overall) last spring out of Ohio State. The accomplished college kicker holds or shares 22 Buckeye records. In his rookie season with the Jets, Nugent not only finished with a perfect extra point percentage, but his field goal percentage was 78.6% (22 for 28) with a long of 49 yards. Although he is a promising franchise kicker, Nugent worked on his leg strength to increase distance on both field goal attempts and kickoffs. He was unable to connect on both 50+ attempts last season, but inside the 49, he was a proven marksman, going 14 for 17.
Graham signed with the Jets in January '05 after 12 successful years in the Australian Football league. Graham appeared in all 16 games last season, averaging 43.7 yards per punt, with a season high 59-yard punt versus the Patriots on December 26. Graham made an impressive first impression during his first appearance with the Jets, banging three punts for no returns in the opener at Kansas City with a long of 51 yards.
The 2006 draft will most likely not see any legs selected sooner than the 5th round. Although there aren't many notable names now, don't be surprised if these names resurface in the years to come.
Following Nugent at Ohio State was a very talented understudy, Josh Huston. Although Huston's career at OSU was limited due to Nugent's excellence and personal injuries in 2000 and 2002, his senior year numbers echo loudly. Huston has the upper hand on Nugent when it comes to kickoffs, owning the school record for number of touchbacks (49 on 70 kicks). After a previously inconsistent career, Huston elevated his game tenfold during the 2005 season. Inside the 49, Huston missed just two field goals, while booting a season-high FG of 47 yards. He missed both of his 50+ yard attempts last fall, but nailed a 57-yard FG in the 2004 spring game.
Although Virginia's Connor Hughes is the smallest kicking prospect (5'10", 172) in the upcoming draft, his leg may be the strongest. Hughes enters the draft as perhaps, the most reliable long distance kicker. Over the course of his career, Hughes connected on 5 of 8 field goals beyond 50 yards. Not to go unnoticed, he connects on the necessary short kicks as well, converting all 23 attempts inside 30 yards. On the downside, the smaller kicker tends to lose his mechanics on the longer kicks, and most likely, will not be able to handle kickoff duties.
Steve Gostkowski finished up his career as the NCAA's active leader in field goals made, and he finished in style. To say that this kicker ended his stint on fire would be an understatement. In his career finale, he kicked his way to a 12 point game against Akron in Memphis' 38-21 Motor City Bowl victory. Although that performance included a 50-yard field goal, Gostkowski still couldn't match his masterpiece versus Marshall, a game in which he slugged a 53-yard field goal as part of a 14 point performance. Gostkowski was consistent with distant field goals throughout his career, going 9 for 9 behind the 40-yard line. He should be the second or third kicker to be picked up, but his athleticism may hold him back. Gostkowski is also a pitcher on the Tigers' baseball team, which may cause teams to question his devotion to football.
Potential Late Round Legs:
*Jon Scifres, Missouri State: *Brother of current NFL punter Mike Scifres; great leg and can handle kickoff duties; able to punt as well.
*Deric Yaussi: Wyoming: *Has very good range, yet inconsistent with easier kicks; strong enough to handle NFL kickoff duties; needs to prove reliability.
Wake Forrest's Ryan Plackemeier has earned a lot of hardware throughout his career. Come late April, he will have bragging rights as well, as he will most likely be the first punter to be chosen in the 2006 draft. Two of his most prestigious honors include the 2005 Ray Guy Award (given to the nation's best punter), as well as being named first team All-American. Last season, Plackemeier nailed an 82-yard punt as part of his career best 3,165 total yards. His smooth approach has limited the opposition to only two blocks against his 220 career punts.
Although Illinois' Steve Weatherford appeared to suffer from a mechanics change in college, he still maintained very productive back-to-back seasons to finish his collegiate career. As a junior, Weatherford booted 23 punts inside the 20 while averaging a career best 45.4 yards per punt. In his senior year he compiled 2,856 yards on 67 punts with a long of 70 yards. Keep in mind, Weatherford did prove himself in very poor weather conditions which will not go unnoticed throughout the league.
Other Notable Punters:
Danny Baugher, Arizona: *Led the nation in punting before suffering a torn ACL in his right knee in October, 2005 against Oregon; very athletic, three year starter; good bloodline, father played football at Syracuse in the 1970's, grandfather played for Temple in the 1940's.
*Tom Malone, Southern Cal:Holds Southern Cal's career punting average (44.5); very quick approach, gets ball in the air quickly; has 84 career punts inside the 20-yard line; 51 of his 153 career punts have traveled over 50 yards; questionable durability.