If there’s been one word you could use to describe Kansas City Chiefs placekicker Harrison Butker in 2021, it would be reliable. You can literally count his field goal and extra-point misses on one hand.
But that ended — at least temporarily — when Butker was one of three Chiefs players added to the team’s Reserve/COVID list on Monday. Because Butker tested positive and is unvaccinated, it was immediately known he would not available for Sunday’s home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers; they moved recently-signed practice-squad placekicker Elliott Fry to the active roster on that same day.
Just as they had done in November 2020 — when they signed punter Tommy Townsend’s brother Johnny Townsend to the practice squad as a hedge against Butker (or the younger Townsend brother) becoming a COVID casualty — the Chiefs had signed Fry to their practice squad just five days earlier.
And on Thursday — according to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero — they doubled down on that move, bringing the elder Townsend brother back to the practice squad, where he can once again serve as a backup placekicker and punter.
With COVID already taking out the #Chiefs' kicker this week, the team is adding insurance for punter Tommy Townsend -- and it's a very familiar face. Townsend's brother, Johnny, is expected to sign with the team's practice squad, per source.— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) December 23, 2021
But for the moment, the 27-year-old Fry is the man who will take on the team’s placekicking duties. The former undrafted free agent out of South Carolina has spent time with the Chicago Bears, Carolina Panthers, Tampa Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons. It was with the Falcons where Fry appeared in his only NFL game to date, in which he kicked one field goal and was 1-for-2 on extra points.
But when he spoke to reporters on Thursday, Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub expressed confidence in Fry.
“He’s really done a good job in the short time he’s been here,” said Toub. ”It says a lot about his work ethic; he came in and really got with [Tommy Townsend] and [James Winchester] and got the operation down. That was the first thing. We had to learn how he wants the ball held — and then Tommy had to adjust to that first. He’s really done a good job in practice; he’s made his field goals.”
But Toub isn’t quite ready to say whether Fry will be able to make the long field goals we have become accustomed to Butker attempting — and then putting through the uprights.
“I’m not sure about his range,” admitted Toub. “I don’t want to talk about range right now — just because I don’t want to put him in a spot right now — but we’ll find out what he is at the game. I mean, it depends on the weather and the wind — just like we do with Butker — it’ll change day-to-day as it goes.”
But Toub was willing to say that Fry is able — like Butker — to kick a touchback at will.
“He does a nice job,” said Toub. “He was one of the guys who came in and worked out. He did a real good job on his workout — and then he did a good job today in kickoffs. So we feel he can kick touchbacks if we ask him to — [although] a lot of times, we don’t. He can kick a high ball and keep it short to where we’ve got to cover it, too. He gives us a variety of ways to go there.”
And Toub also said that Fry is a long way from simply being a guy they could sign off the street at this moment. In fact, Toub said that he’s had his eye on him since his final season at South Carolina in 2016.
“We liked him coming out,” recalled Toub. “We had a really good grade on him coming out of South Carolina; [we] didn’t really look at the Falcons game. He’s been a lot smaller. He’s gotten bigger. He’s gained like 30 pounds since he was up at [the] Bears. I know [special teams coordinator] Chris Tabor at the Bears — he worked for me when I was at Chicago — so I called him about [Fry]. And he told me that [Fry] was a lighter guy and wasn’t that strong. But that was 30 pounds ago; he gained 30 pounds since he was at the Bears — and his leg’s gotten a lot stronger. That really impressed me.”
And Fry wasn’t the only player the team considered as its break-glass-in-emergency placekicker.
“Our scouting department is on top of it,” explained Toub. “They do such a great job — [General manager Brett Veach] and all of his guys. So they gave me a list of guys and [asked], ‘Who do you like?’ We narrowed it down to a couple of guys --- and brought a couple of guys in — and the best man won. That’s the way it rolls.”
Noting that longtime placekicker Robbie Gould began his NFL career with the Chicago Bears after winning just such a tryout, Toub said he hopes that Fry will find the same success after Butker is able to resume his duties.
“Hopefully, this is the stepping stone for the kid,” said Toub. “He does a good job, other teams notice him — and it could be the start of a great career for the guy.”
But for now, Toub and Fry are focusing on getting him ready to play at Arrowhead on Sunday — where swirling winds have proved difficult for many kickers.
“We went over there today,” Toub said. “He had a really good workout. We went over today after we kicked at our practice facility — went up there and kicked a bunch of kicks going both ways. We had the wind that we’re probably going to get for Sunday — we think — and it was a good session today. I feel good about where we’re at right now.”