The Kansas City Chiefs, like every other team, embrace the benefits of competition at every position. No single player should be above a challenge for their starting position or roster spot, and the Chiefs have given everyone something to play for this offseason. The recent release of Brandon Flowers shows a slice of this reality; a solid history with the team does not guarantee one's future.
An interesting challenge is shaping up at kicker, where a steady veteran is facing off against a promising rookie. Ryan Succop, the Chiefs kicker for the last five seasons, and Cairo Santos, a rookie free agent from Tulane, are competing for a job that could be more open than you might think. Here's a tale of the tape.
A Succop Survey
Ryan Succop entered the NFL as the Chiefs' seventh round pick in the 2009 draft, the only player left with the team from that draft class. After the Nick Novak/Connor Barth experiment in 2008, Succop came into camp, won the job, and never looked back. Since then, he's become a consistent performer for the Chiefs, having never missed a game (80) or extra point (161) in his five-year career.
Succop has also been a fairly consistent performer as a field goal kicker. He's automatic in his career within 30 yards (33 of 34) and he hits 85% of his attempts from inside the 40. He ranks No. 31 all time in field goal percentage in the NFL (80.9%), but that's a bit of a misnomer given that the list is heavily populated by active kickers (22 of the top 32). He's also been perfect in the postseason for the Chiefs, going 3 for 3 in playoff field goal attempts.
That said, Succop has had some consistency issues in the last year. During previous two seasons (2011-12), Succop was perfect from beyond 50 yards. In 2013, he made only 1 of 4. Overall, Succop's field goal percentage was down last year at 78.6 percent (22 of 28), the second lowest total of his career. With a 76.9 percent figure in 2010, it's clear that Succop's stock has fluctuated quite a bit in his five seasons.
The good news for Succop is that he has shown himself to be an above average performer on kickoffs. Succop averaged 64.4 yards per kickoff in 2013, good for 12th in the NFL (and only 1.4 yards behind the NFL leader, Packers kicker Tim Masthay). That's nearly three yards better than his previous total in 2012 of 61.7 yards and even better than his 2011 total of 60.8 yards. Clearly Dave Toub and his staff found a way to improve Succop's performance.
Santos is a small challenger (at 5'8, 164 pounds) but his résumé is more significant in stature. The Brazilian came to the States as a foreign exchange student and became a record setter at Tulane with single-season and career numbers that placed him in the conversation among best kickers in the nation. He won the Lou Groza Award in 2012, awarded to the best kicker in college football, due to his field goal percentage (21 of 21) -- only the second kicker ever to not miss a FG all season. This last season, Santos lost a bit of his touch going 16 of 23, but he also tied for the longest field goal in CFB last year with a 56-yard strike against Louisiana-Monroe.
Santos ends his career as Tulane's career leader in field goal percentage (78%) and second all-time in points scored (312). He finished his career 61 of 78 in field goals and enjoyed a streak of 26 consecutive completions, second longest all-time in NCAA history. He also forced a touchback on 75 percent of his kickoffs in 2013.
The downside on Santos is the way that his accuracy fluctuated from season to season. He also enjoyed the ability to kick indoors much of the time, since Tulane played their games in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome through 2013.
Let's Talk About Money
Scott Pioli signed Succop to a five-year, $14 million extension in 2011, which ranked him among the better paid kickers in the league. John Dorsey restructured the kicker's cap hit from $1.95 million to $715k for a total cap hit of $1,473,750 (down nearly a million from the previous season) last offseason, but the difference was turned into a prorated bonus. Thus the cap hit goes up in 2014 to $2,708,750, a number which might force Dorsey to try to alter things once again.
Succop currently ranks as the eighth highest paid kicker in the NFL. The leader, Josh Scobee of the Jags, is set to count $4.1 million against the cap. That said, it's interesting to note that veteran options like Mike Nugent (CIN), Josh Brown (NY), and Jay Feely (ARI) cost less than half against the cap as Succop.
Succop's deal only becomes more expensive from here on out as well. Cap hits of $3.5 million and $3.2 million in 2015 and 2016 respectively might be cost prohibitive for the Chiefs, especially if Succop has another year below 80 percent as a field goal kicker.
Training camp will allow for much better analysis of the kicker battle since it will provide game-time situations to see how Santos performs in the spotlight. If the Chiefs like what they see from the rookie, it could prove enough to push Succop. However, it's more likely that kicker, like the No. 2 quarterback spot, is a risk-averse position for the Chiefs. Succop is a known quantity, and while it's possible to improve, it's also likely that Santos could implode. He certainly wouldn't be the first rookie to flinch in the spotlight (i.e. Justin Medlock).
Instead, I believe the presence (and threat) of Santos gives the Chiefs enough leverage to once again restructure Succop's contract if they believe his cap hit is a bit more than desired. Then again, it's possible the room generated by Flowers' release is more than enough. Either way, Succop is likely to keep his job in the end with an added pressure to show himself consistent in 2014.