Friday, June 29, 2018

Daniel Carlson brings competition to Vikings' special teams room

Photo: Auburn Tigers

The Vikings drafted kicker Daniel Carlson in the fifth-round of the NFL draft. Find out what makes him one of the unique kickers to enter the league in recent seasons. 

Updated: June 29, 2018, 12:30 p.m.
By: Daniel House

NFL teams are trying to create competition at every position on a 90-man training camp roster. This even applies to specialists, who play an integral role in an important phase of the game – special teams.

The Vikings spent a fifth-round pick on Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson, a two-time All-American and three-time Lou Groza Award winner. It cranks up the temperature of a training camp competition between the rookie kicker and veteran Kai Forbath.

Last season, Forbath missed five of his 39 extra point ties, many of which came at inopportune times. He also converted just 32 of his 38 field goal tries (84%). Two of those missed attempts took place during close losses against Detroit and Carolina. There were certainly moments where Forbath made things interesting in 2017. However, his 53-yard field goal in the final minutes of the NFC Divisional game vs. New Orleans was critical.

At the end of the day, it’s about overall consistency. The Vikings not only had the chance to draft a talented kicker, but created another competition at an important position.

Daniel Carlson set the SEC career points record last season (474 points) and holds 14 kicking records at Auburn. He made 23-of-31 field goal attempts in 2017, going 4-of-8 from 50-plus yards (three of those blocked). His kicking percentage dropped ten percent during his senior year, but a few of those misses were the result of blocked kicks and long attempts.

Minnesota’s coaches will likely value Daniel Carlson’s ability to boom kickoffs deep as well. He booted 156-of-222 attempts out of the back of the end zone, which was one of the top marks in college football. Stretching field position can put pressure on an an opponent and place your defense in favorable situations. Traditionally, Forbath’s kickoff statistics have been unimpressive, but he drastically improved last year, finishing tied for eighth in kickoff average (63.5). However, Carlson has the chance to be one of the top kickers in this metric, as evidenced by his past college success.

During the draft process, many talent evaluators I talked with said Carlson was one of the best kickers they had watched in recent seasons. It’s clear based upon all of the interest he received during the draft process.

Leading up to the draft, Carlson held private workouts with the Dolphins, Seahawks, Giants and Bengals. The interest increased substantially after he made all of his kicks during the NFL Scouting Combine. He also worked out privately with Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer and the coach left impressed. Minnesota traded up to draft Carlson, who became just the seventh kicker selected in team history. Prior to Blair Walsh in 2012, the Vikings had not selected a kicker since Mike Wood in 1978.

One of the most unique aspects of Daniel Carlson is his size. He is currently the tallest kicker in the NFL. Carlson measures in at 6-foot-5, 213 pounds and is just an inch shy of breaking an NFL record. Former Bengals and Packers kicker Travis Dorsch is the tallest kicker in NFL history at 6-foot-6. It’s not often you’ll see a kicker with this type of size.

Some evaluators search for kickers with smaller profiles to execute a more compact striking motion. However, there are many advantages associated with taller kickers, such as distance and leg strength for kickoffs or deep field goals. Carlson addressed this during his post-draft conference call.

“There are advantages with having longer levers. For people that understand golf, where having a longer club you get more force just by simple physics, to what you’re kicking or hitting, whatever it is. Those are the advantages,” Carlson said. “That helps a lot with kickoffs, longer field goals, all that stuff.

When a player has this type of size, the key is focusing on the technique, while making sure all of the smaller details are executed at a high level. This includes the kicker's alignment, approach, striking area and launch ankle.  

As basic laws of physics tell us, centripetal force is the force a kicker applies that pulls the football inward, causing the ball to move in a circular motion. This force acts in the equal and opposite direction to centrifugal force (an apparent force). I highly recommend reading Ray Guy’s kicking book to learn more about this.

The centrifugal force is the apparent force of the football moving on a curved path outward and away from the center of the curve. If more centrifugal force occurs, additional vertical rotation will be applied. Little things such as how much tilt the holder applies, can improve the centrifugal force (or vertical rotation). This directly impacts how the kicker strikes the ball, including its overall path and accuracy. If a kicker is taller, the contact area with the football can also vary because of his longer levers. Many evaluators have long believed centrifugal force is accomplished at a higher level when a kicker’s levers and motion are more compact.

As you’ll learn in Ray Guy’s book, approach, target zone, striking angle/placement, plant step, follow through and vertical rotation (maximizing centrifugal force) are all things going through a kicker’s mind with every rep. It’s why consistency and a focus on technique are extra important for taller kickers like Carlson.

“You have to also be consistent and that’s sometimes where a smaller guy has a bigger advantage because he doesn’t have long levers to move,” Carlson explained. “That’s something I’ve worked on very hard over the years and making sure I’m consistent and smooth so that I can be as consistent or more consistent than any other body size.”

So how many kickers have succeeded who don’t feature smaller body profiles?

The last kicker who had a successful career with a 6-foot-5 profile was Mike Vanderjagt. During his nine-year NFL stint with the Colts and Cowboys, he converted 86.5% of his field goals tries and was voted to a Pro Bowl.

Outside of that, the most recent kicker with a tall body profile is Harrison Butker (6-foot-4). Last year, during his rookie season, Butker converted 90.5% (38-for-42) of his attempts and all 28 extra points. There were similar concerns for Butker when he was evaluated in the draft process. He at least silenced those critics for one season with his strong performance.

With Carlson, there’s no doubting he can improve the Vikings’ field goal range, kickoff depth and field position. The question is whether the coaches feel comfortable with his ability to convert field goals accurately from varying distances. With his conversion percentage dropping in college, it’s worth seeing how he handles field goals from 25-45 yards out at the next level. Maintaining sound technique and continually improving will go a long way toward helping him sustain success.

The Vikings selected Carlson in the fifth-round for a reason. He was one of the most talented specialists in the draft. He also provides competition at the position and may upgrade the overall production output at kicker.

Training camp and the preseason will decide the competition, but it’s clear the Vikings value Carlson after trading up to select him. 

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