Dave Birkett | Detroit Free Press
A strong leg is important. Accuracy is a must. But Dave Fipp has seen enough kickers in his time in the NFL to know neither one of those traits means a thing if you don’t have the mental fortitude to go with it.
“I think probably the most important thing (successful kickers have) really is upstairs,” Fipp, the Detroit Lions’ new special teams coordinator, said last month. “The ability to forget a kick and let those things go. It’s obviously a high-pressure position on a football team. These guys win and lose football games. It comes down to them. But I would say consistency and just a really strong mindset is probably the two most important things.”
The Lions are in the market for a kicker this spring for the first time since 2014.
Matt Prater will be an unrestricted free agent next week, and even if he returns, the 36-year-old is coming off one of the worst kicking seasons of his career.
Prater missed seven field goals of 40-plus yards last season and three extra points. He said in January he “definitely” wants to play again in 2020 and hopes to stay with the Lions.
“The easiest thing, obviously, would be to stay here,” Prater said. “We love being here and living in Michigan. So yeah, I’d love to continue playing and hopefully it would be here.”
Before last season, Prater had been one of the most dependable kickers in the NFL. He is the NFL’s all-time leader in 50-plus yard field goals and one of the most clutch late-game kickers of all-time.
That matters to Fipp, who said of kickers, “You’ve got to look at kind of their whole body of work and see how they’ve done in situations like that in the past, and you can kind of predict what you’re going to get in the future.”
Last season, despite his struggles, Prater delivered in pressure situations for the Lions. He made a game-winning 48-yard extra point to beat the Atlanta Falcons and kicked field goals of 39 and 59 yards as time expired in wins over the Arizona Cardinals and Washington.
The Lions have already started planning for what should be a thorough training camp competition. They signed Matthew Wright to a futures deal after the season and, depending what happens with Prater, could look to add a veteran free agent or draft or sign a rookie.
Wright, who like Prater played collegiately at Central Florida, kicked in three games for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season. He made all four of his field goal attempts (with a long of 46 yards), was 7 for 7 on extra points and, unlike Prater, handled kickoffs.
The Lions also could have a competition at long snapper, where Don Muhlbach is a free agent but has been a fixture since midway through the 2004 season – before new coach Dan Campbell joined the team as a player.
“These guys are two pros that are incredible,” Fipp said last month. “Their careers really are amazing. Their stories. Everything about these guys. I’ve reached out to them and talked to them. I think I did that on my first day here. Really, I have a lot of respect for them. I mean, these guys are great players who’ve done amazing things in this league.”
If the Lions wait till the draft to add competition at kicker, Fipp said it will be incumbent upon him to figure out if which kickers can handle the mental side of the game.
“I think more than anything, you’ve just got to talk to a lot of people who’ve been around him, especially in these times with the COVID, you can’t get out and do as much traveling and all that, and getting to know people around him,” Fipp said. “But I think it’s really important to have a bunch of connections in the college coaching world and coaches you can talk to and try to get to know these guys as well as you can, I think is probably the most important thing.”