Dustin Hopkins and Zach Hocker find themselves on opposite sides of the same coin.
Two young kickers, separated by one year in age and not much else. Two former draft picks, cut loose by the teams that selected them before even attempting a regular-season kick, briefly stuck on the endless NFL road that is the end of the roster, only to find an exit ramp in New Orleans.
Hopkins was signed after the Saints brought in four kickers for a tryout in December. Hocker, who was a part of that tryout, spent three months on a future/reserve contract with the Dolphins, only to land in New Orleans after a May cut by Miami and another open tryout, this time at the Saints’ rookie minicamp.
Two days later, New Orleans cut its incumbent, Shayne Graham, and cleared the path for an open competition between Hopkins and Hocker, two old friends who have known each other for years.
“The way this business is, I wasn’t surprised just the way everything unfolded,” Hopkins said. “But it’s definitely something I didn’t expect.”
Open competition is nothing new to Hopkins or Hocker, who lost tight races to Dan Carpenter in Buffalo and Kai Forbath in Washington — an injury cost Hopkins his chance to entrench himself in Buffalo — after the elation of being one of the few kickers to hear their names called in the draft.
NFL teams, save for the ones who employ the league’s best legs, are always on the hunt for a more consistent kicker.
“I like the idea of just a good kicker at that position,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I am not partial to his age, I am not partial to whether he is tall, short, fat.”
But few NFL teams head into the summer without at least one veteran option competing for the job.
“That’s, I think, what’s thrown most people off here is that Dustin and I both don’t have a legit 53-man roster kick in a game,” Hocker said. “We both played in preseasons and competed for jobs. But any time you can get that first year under belt, any kind of regular-season experience, that’s definitely in your favor.”
An opportunity to land that full-time gig is now in front of both Hopkins and Hocker.
All they have to do is beat out a close friend. Elite kickers and punters are part of an informal fraternity, built on a camaraderie that begins all the way back in high school. Unlike position players, who spend their time at camps put on by the teams recruiting them heavily, there’s only one camp that really matters for kickers and punters. Nearly every elite kicker begins his career at Kohl’s Kicking Camps, headed by Jamie Kohl and held all over the country. Thomas Morstead, the Saints’ veteran punter, spends parts of every offseason as a team leader at those camps.
In fact, when Hocker was still being recruited as a punter by Arkansas, his team leader at Kohl’s was Morstead.
“Starting at a young level, you kind of get to know each other and kick against each other,” Hocker said. “By the time you’re at the NFL level, everybody knows everybody.”
Hopkins and Hocker, who have both served as instructors at Kohl’s camp, forged an easy friendship, a relationship that’s now stronger based on shared experiences.
Being a kicker on the fringe of the NFL isn’t easy; Hocker worked out for five teams last season without getting signed, and Hopkins spent the fall rehabbing the groin injury that cost him his roster spot with the Bills.
In tryouts, Hocker said, nearly everybody can hit 50-yard field goals; the decision is often made on things like the height the ball reaches or the sound it makes coming off of each kicker’s foot.
All of that uncertainty puts the current situation into perspective.
“Any time you’re on a team, you can’t complain,” Hocker said. “Any time you’re under contract. That’s all I wanted, whether I was behind a veteran or whatever, I was going to be where I’m supposed to be. This league’s crazy. ... Coaches are going to make decisions that you might not understand in the moment, so just go out there and do the best you can and hope it works out.”
Plenty is at stake for both Hocker and Hopkins in this competition.
Not that it’s changed their friendship. If anything, having a friend in town to deal with the pressure of a kicking competition helps.
The job remains the same.
“Either way, there’s always going to be somebody right there with you,” Hopkins said. ”If you’re doing what you need to do every day, then you can control what you can control, and the rest will take care of itself, whether that’s here or somewhere else.”
But the free-agent road can be exhausting. Both Hopkins and Hocker hope they earn the right to be in New Orleans for a long time.