Matt McCrane went undrafted in April, which gave the Kansas State kicker options on where to sign as a rookie free agent.
He chose the Cardinals for several reasons, high among them the chance to learn from veteran kicker Phil Dawson. McCrane grew up a University of Texas fan so he knew of Dawson’s exploits there, and has since followed his long NFL career.
While McCrane, 23, was excited about the pairing, he couldn’t vouch for how Dawson would feel. McCrane is 20 years younger and ostensibly joined the team to take Dawson’s job. He thought there might be some eggshell-walking as the two got to know each other.
“Coming in, I honestly didn’t expect Phil to be as helpful as he is,” McCrane said. “He shares a lot of knowledge with me. He’s been in the league for quite some time. He has a lot of game experience, and off the field experience as well. He’s a guy I look up to a lot. Coming in I didn’t expect that from Phil. It’s a competition and we understand that, but he’s been great.”
Dawson, 43, was signed to a two-year, $6 million contract in free agency before the 2017 season and is the favorite to play out the contract. He started last season slowly but hit 20-of-22 field goals down the stretch, finishing with an 80 percent conversion rate on the year.
McCrane connected on 86.4 percent of his field goals at Kansas State, the seventh-best percentage in NCAA history. Coach Steve Wilks is willing to give McCrane a fair shot to win the job, like he does for every young player.
“I think every rookie’s job is hard, when you’re starting to come in, to make a role for yourself,” Wilks said. “You’ve got a seasoned vet like Phil who has proven themselves throughout the years. But again, everything that we’re doing at every position is about competition. Matt is very confident, and I like that about him. He’s competing hard.”
The knock on McCrane, who is listed at 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, is leg strength, something he disputes. He was 5-of-8 on field goals from 50 yards or further in college but was a whisker away from being much better.
“I had a 59 off the crossbar against Oklahoma,” McCrane said. “I had a 53 off the post and a 52 off the post. Three of those misses are inches, and they’re in. To say that I struggled at 50-plus is not true. I wish I could have proven that otherwise in college.”
McCrane has been housed with the other rookies since joining the Cardinals, but he also spent a significant amount of time with the specialists throughout the offseason. Punter Andy Lee, 35, took him golfing on the weekends while Dawson and long snapper Aaron Brewer, 28, were quick with advice.
“You have that spread out age group between Brew, Andy and Phil,” McCrane said. “You get to learn about every stage in the National Football League through those three guys. It’s cool to see. It’s a little bit different perspective than I had in college hanging out with sub-21-year-olds.”
McCrane’s stint with the older trio will continue in training camp, where he hopes to kickstart a similarly long and prosperous career.
“Being one of the most consistent kickers in college football history, it was disappointing to not be drafted,” McCrane said. “But at the same time, now I’ll hopefully be with this organization for the next three years and then sign a contract extension after that.”