INDIANAPOLIS -- Missed kicks negatively impacted the outcome of three Cardinals games in 2016.
Just down the road at Arizona State, Zane Gonzalez hit 23-of-25 field goals and was awarded the Lou Groza Award as the country’s best college kicker.
These two facts are not lost on the fans that support both teams. Whether on social media or while milling about town, Gonzalez has been told countless times how great it would be to see his golden leg stay local.
It’s a hypothetical that makes him uneasy.
Gonzalez, a lifelong Texans fans from Houston, has adopted the Cardinals as his second-favorite team after spending four years in Arizona, and would be happy to play for them. But he also believes angling to get drafted somewhere specific means he’s wishing for the incumbent to lose his job.
“I feel like it’s bad karma if you root against somebody,” Gonzalez said. “That’s horrible karma.”
Instead, Gonzalez arrived at the NFL Scouting combine this week ready to audition for all 32 teams, and if he does well, preference won’t matter because someone should draft him.
Gonzalez steadily improved throughout his college career and enters the combine as the top draft prospect at his position. A unanimous All-American as a senior, Gonzalez wrapped up his collegiate career as the FBS record-holder in field goals made (96) and points by a kicker (496).
He connected on 82.8 percent of field goals over his four years with the Sun Devils, culminating with the standout senior season.
“Freshman year, I would have to give it all to make it from 55,” Gonzalez said. “Now it’s the same as an extra point, kind of deal. You know the ball is going to get there. It’s all about your technique. That’s just a part of getting older.”
As teams decide whether to make a sizable investment in a kicker – a move pilloried when it goes wrong – they will poke, prod and research until feeling comfortable with the decision. Gonzalez has been amused by the depths teams will go to check him out.
"They’re really digging,” he said. “They find some crazy stuff. It’s a really interesting process. But it’s all within the game of the next level. Just have fun with it, enjoy it and laugh about it later.”
The increased extra-point distance and the propensity for close games in the NFL has made kickers a bigger focus. While they aren’t going to be talked about in the same breath as skill players, the addition of an elite leg can make a difference.
Steve Keim hasn’t drafted a kicker since taking over as the Cardinals’ general manager, but believes the cream of the crop hold significant value.
“When you find one that is consistent, has a lot of internal strength, strong-minded, those guys are hard to find,” Keim said. “And we all know, you never want to put a game on a kicker, for a missed kick or a missed extra point, but at the end of the day, it’s reality. It happens. And it can be extremely costly. When that can decide a game, you have to put a lot of value in them.”
Gonzalez’s wish to be drafted high could be damaged through no fault of his own. The Buccaneers traded up to select Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round of last year’s draft, but he finished his rookie season only 22-of-31 on field goals, a 71 percent success rate that was the worst in the NFL.
“The whole Aguayo situation, he did finish the season strong, but I think that does come into play when it comes to drafting a kicker earlier,” Gonzalez said. “I think it does make people gun-shy about it. But at the end of the day, it’s all up to the executives and all those guys that make those decisions. You never know what’s going through their minds.”
It’s a more exhilarating time for Gonzalez. There was such little interest when he graduated Deer Park High School that Gonzalez nearly played junior college soccer. Arizona State offered him a scholarship two months after Signing Day, and he’s never looked back.
“Coming out of a little town and coming here (to Arizona State), I saw it as a platform to get to the NFL,” Gonzalez said. “Then it was up to me to go out and actually do it. I kind of always thought I was (good enough), and from freshman year to now it just got more and more real. Now that I’m actually here, it’s amazing to actually be here.
“I’m ready to get started at the next level. Get this whole process done with and go from there. Actually be on the field kicking a field goal, a game-winning field goal, that’s where I want to be.”