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Ben Kotwica’s Special Teams Report: The Onside Kick is Trending Up

The Onside Kick is Trending Up

Having worked in the NFL for 15 years in the special teams realm, each week we will discuss the most impactful moments from in the kicking, punting or return game. Often special teams can be overlooked, but the critical nature of a reliable and effective special teams unit cannot be overstated.

This week, we will take a closer look into the nature of an onside kick in today’s NFL, buyer beware of the ST carousel and tip our cap to the top performers.

Onside Kicks

This past week in the NFL saw multiple onside kick attempts, most notably, the kick in the Seahawks vs Jaguars game in which the Seahawks took the onside kick back for a touchdown. 

Seattle Seahawk Travis Homer was able to cleanly scoop the Michael Wright kick and proceed through the hole in the kicking team coverage pattern to bring it back for a 44-yard score. This past offseason, the NFL put a new rule into place to make the onside kick safer for the players and attempted to generate more recoveries from the kicking team.

The rule adjustment limited the number of defender’s in the “Setup” zone to 9 on any given kick.  The “Setup” zone is defined as the area between the Kick off return unit’s restraining line (typically the opponent 45 yard line) and 15 yard back (typically the return team’s own 40 yard line).  

This new rule was created in part due to a shortage of onside kicks recovered in 2020. During the 2020-2021 season, there were a total of 71 onside kicks attempted in the regular season, with only 3 of them being successful returns.

This is a rate of success of just over 4% — the lowest in NFL history. Through 8 weeks in the 2021-2022 season, there have been 24 onside kicks, in comparison to year’s past: 2020 (32), 2019 (26) and 2018 (22).

Buyer Beware

We have spoken a lot throughout the season of the NFL Special Teams kicking carousel that occurs with kickers being cut, signed and cut again. 

One of the most recent examples, which can cause the buyers in the kicker market to be weary is the situation in Washington. Washington cut K Dustin Hopkins who had been with them since 2015 to replace him with K Chris Blewitt. 

Blewitt has struggled to strike the ball consistently in his time with the WFT as he has had 3 of his 5 kicks blocked so far. This is due in part to his inconsistent ball striking and low ball flight which has even resulted in hitting his own offensive lineman this past weekend in Denver. In today's kicker market, it can be a difficult situation similarly to that of today’s housing market.  While it is easy to cut or “sell” a kicker, the challenge comes from trying to acquire or “buy” a kicker who can sustain long term success for the team. 

After being cut, Hopkins was signed by the LA Chargers, who have been in the market for a kicker all season. In Hopkins’ first game for LAC, he was 1-for-1, hitting from 45-plus on his FG attempts and going 3-for-3 in his XPs. 

In addition, 49ers K Joey Slye was cut this past week with their long time veteran Robbie Gould coming back from IR. Slye, who was originally with the Panthers to start this league year, will be looking for his 4th team in the 2021 season. He has missed 2 FGs and 3 XPs in his stints with the Texans and the 49ers.

Kotwica’s Clutch Kicks

Credit to Titans K Randy Bullock

  • Randy Bullock, who was signed by the Titans to start the year, has been solid with just 2 missed FGs and 1 missed XP through 6 games. This past week in overtime against the divisional rival Colts, Bullock hit from 44 yards out to secure the victory in a crucial divisional game for the Titans. Bullock is now 5 of 6 on FGs in the 4th quarter and OT ,and 2-for-3 on XPs. Bullock has shown he can kick in crucial spots, hitting over 84% of his FGs in the 4th quarter and OT in his career.

Credit to Chiefs K Harrison Butker

  • Harrison Butker is 2nd all-time in FG% behind the legendary Justin Tucker. He has made 90.3% of his kicks since he entered the league in 2017. Butker hit another crucial kick this past Monday night against the Giants. The game was a bit sloppy from both offenses, but Butker was able to seal the victory for the Chiefs with a 34-yard FG with 1:12 left in the 4th quarter. Butker’s 90% mark on FGs so far this season is top 10 in the league for kickers with 10-plus attempts.