It might not be the most exciting or chronicled battle of the offseason.
It’s not the kind of thing that moves the needle in print or over the airwaves.
But the battle between New Orleans Saints kickers Dustin Hopkins and Zach Hocker should be one of the more closely contested fights this offseason, and it carries significant importance.
For the first time in a long time, the Saints have the opportunity to lock up a kicker who can be trusted and, if things go well, hold down the job for the foreseeable future. That’s a luxury that Sean Payton has not enjoyed in recent years.
The coach has paraded through a cast of kickers since landing here in 2006, going from John Carney to Olindo Mare to Martin Gramatica to Garrett Hartley to John Kasay back to Hartley and to Shayne Graham. There also were times when the Saints carried two kickers. It has been a revolving door, with Hartley the only player to achieve some degree of security.
Graham became the latest casualty last week when he was released after New Orleans signed Hocker to compete with Hopkins.
On a basic level, the requirements of winning the job seem obvious. The next kicker will need to be accurate, have a strong leg and not cause the coaching staff to hold their collective breath whenever he steps on the field. But because of the constant turnover and use of stopgaps early in Payton’s tenure in New Orleans, it’s difficult to peg what it will take to appease him.
Hartley connected on 81.2 percent of his field goals during his six seasons in New Orleans. But after missing only three times from 40 yards or deeper during his first five seasons, he was let go after missing four times from that distance in 2013.
Graham was deadly accurate from the short area of the field last season but missed three times from 40 yards or deeper. Two of those came late in the season, leading to New Orleans signing Hopkins to the practice squad. At that point, it became clear that Graham had fallen out of favor with the coaching staff.
Hartley served as the primary kicker for three full seasons (2010, 2012 and 2013), and he managed to stick around after connecting on 80 percent of his kicks in 2010 and 81.8 percent in 2012. He connected on 73.3 percent in 2013. Graham made 86.4 percent of the kicks last season.
So in Payton’s book, it seems the definition of success is connecting on about 80 percent of the attempts and being accurate from deep. If Hocker or Hopkins can accomplish those tasks, that player should win the job and could manage to stick around for a little bit if he continues to live up to that standard.
Here’s a look at where the battle stands heading into organized team activities:
The case for Hopkins
Both Hopkins and Hocker were part of a group of players who tried out for the Saints in December before the Saints signed Hopkins to the practice squad. While that fact could quickly become meaningless as the offseason progresses, it suggests he might have the inside lane on the job.
Hopkins developed into one of the better kickers in college football during his time at Florida State, connecting on 83.3 percent as a senior in 2012. He showed good distance, going 5-of-6 from 50 yards or deeper, but he was only 6-of-9 from 40 to 49 yards.
He was selected by the Buffalo Bills in the sixth round of the 2013 draft and managed to win the starting job after a strong preseason, in which he connected on all six of his field-goal attempts. But Hopkins suffered a groin injury, was placed on injured reserve and was eventually released.
It seems, assuming he did not lose any leg strength during his time off, that he should be able to check all the boxes for success in New Orleans.
The case for Hocker
Like Hopkins, Hocker developed into one of the better college kickers during his time at Arkansas, and he has a big leg. One could argue his senior season might have been even better than Hopkins’ was.
In 2013, Hocker connected on 86.7 percent of his kicks, making 2-of-3 from 40 to 49 yards, and 3-of-4 from 50 yards or deeper. He didn’t always enjoy such success.
He was 2-of-6 from 40 yards or deeper as a junior, and he missed three kicks from that range as a sophomore. Development must be considered, but the variations and small sample sizes could be cause for concern.
Hocker was selected by the Washington Redskins in the seventh round of the 2014 draft, but he was let go before the season after going 2-for-3 in the preseason. His miss came from the 30- to 39-yard range.
An additional level
One thing the coaching staff might look at to break a tie is how long it takes each kicker to kick the ball from the time it is snapped.
During last year’s battle between Graham and Derek Dimke, Jamie Kohl — a kicking guru who works with many NFL players, including Saints punter Thomas Morstead — said any time faster than 1.3 seconds is acceptable.
Both Hopkins and Hocker fall comfortably within that range. In the games timed, Hopkins came in slightly faster, at 1.09 seconds per kick. Hocker was a tick slower at 1.18 seconds.
Hopkins’ shorter motion stands out, but it remains to be seen how both players look after having some time off.