Special teams players don’t often get much attention during draft season, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. In fact, there are at least 50 players eligible for this draft who play kicker, punter, or long snapper while other players will be drafted with the intent to play on special teams exclusively.
The Cowboys opted to re-sign punter Bryan Anger, coming off a Pro Bowl appearance, and long snapper Jake McQuaide. That means they’re probably set at those two positions, but you never know when an undrafted free agent can surprise. Kicker is the Cowboys’ biggest need in this area after cutting Greg Zuerlein. Chris Naggar, with three total kicks to his name, is the only kicker on the roster at the moment, so it’s very possible one of these names could end up in Dallas soon.
Here are some of the best players in this upcoming draft at each of the three specialist roles.
Cade York, LSU
Cade York is considered by many to be the top kicker in this draft, and the best bet to be the first (and maybe only) one actually drafted. York’s first year at LSU saw him win a national championship with Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase. While LSU’s high-scoring offense helped York tally 152 points that year, he had the lowest figures of his college career in both field goal and extra point conversion rates.
Since then, though, he has been much better. He’s hit all 75 of his extra point attempts the last two years and converted 33 of his 39 field goal attempts in that span. During the 2020 season, York drilled a career-long 57-yard field goal with 27 seconds remaining to seal the Tigers’ upset victory over sixth-ranked Florida and snap LSU’s two-game losing streak.
Born in McKinney, Texas and playing high school ball at Prosper High School, York could have a homecoming if Dallas decides to draft him.
Cameron Dicker, Texas
Speaking of hometown heroes, how about Dicker the Kicker? While he was actually born in Hong Kong, Dicker played at Lake Travis High in Austin, Texas before opting to stay home and play for the Longhorns.
Dicker was the Longhorns’ kicker for the past four years, and while he never had a season in which he was perfect on extra points, he never missed more than one in a given year. After averaging a 73.4% conversion rate on field goals through his first three years at Texas, he took a huge step forward this past year, hitting 13 of his 15 field goal attempts. Both misses were from over 50 yards out and both came in the first two games of the season. Dicker hit every one he tried from then on.
Dicker was also the Longhorns’ primary punter this past season, a new role for him. He averaged 46.8 yards a punt on 47 punts. He likely won’t be asked to punt again in the NFL, but it’s nice to know he can punt if necessary.
Blake Mazza, SMU
Keeping up our trend of local Texas products, here’s Blake Mazza of Plano Senior High School. His football journey has certainly been a whirlwind for a kicker.
Mazza’s only scholarship offer was for the Army, but he opted to instead walk-on at Arkansas. After not appearing in any games his first year with the Razorbacks, he transferred to Washington State, where he became their starter. His first year with the Cougars resulted in hitting two thirds of his field goal attempts. Mazza took a huge step forward his next year, hitting 20 of his 21 field goal attempts. In the four games Washington State played during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, he hit all four field goal attempts.
That’s when Mazza transferred to SMU, citing a desire to be closer to home. But the homecoming didn’t pan out, as he hit just 12 of his 16 field goal attempts, a significant step back from his more efficient days in Pullman. It’s downright odd that Mazza would perform better in colder weather than in his native state, but maybe his struggles go deeper than that.
Gabe Brkic, Oklahoma
Gabe Brkic came to Oklahoma from Chardon, Ohio where he was ranked as the seventh best kicker in the nation.
Brkic redshirted his first year in Norman but then burst onto the scene for the Sooners. In his first season, he hit all 52 of his extra point attempts and all 17 of his field goal attempts. The next year he remained perfect on extra points and hit 20 of his 26 field goal attempts. Brkic was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza award both years.
His junior year saw him miss his first extra point, but he still hit 57 of 58 attempts. He was also good on 20 of 26 field goal tries, the exact same number as the previous season. This time, Brkic was a finalist for the Lou Groza award, but narrowly lost out. Overall, he has been a model of consistency and reliability for the Sooners, even if he doesn’t have the strongest leg.
Brandon Ruiz, Mississippi State
Pivoting to a kicker who does have a big leg, Brandon Ruiz was once one of the rising college kickers. After deciding to stay in-state and play for the Arizona State Sun Devils, Ruiz quickly won the top kicker job in Tempe.
As a freshman, he hit 49 of his 50 extra point attempts - the one miss was a block - and 19 of his 27 field goal tries. Many of his misses that year came from beyond 50 yards away, and the fact that he even attempted them was a testament to the coaching staff’s trust in his leg. As a sophomore, Ruiz hit 18 of his 22 field goal attempts, including a career-long 54-yarder that stands to this day as the third longest field goal in program history.
Ahead of his junior season, he suffered a groin injury that caused him to miss the first few games of the season. In his place, walk-on kicker Christian Zendejas (son of former Cowboys kicker Luis Zendejas) performed well enough to earn a scholarship, prompting Ruiz to transfer to Mississippi State. He hit 10 of 12 field goals and was perfect on extra points in his first year with the Bulldogs, but head coach Mike Leach benched him during Ruiz’s final season after some misses.
Ruiz’s body of work is very strong, but he ended his college career on a sour note. Perhaps NFL teams will look past that.
Matt Araiza, San Diego State
The Punt God himself, Matt Araiza, has developed a cult following for his booming punts with the San Diego State Aztecs. A native of San Diego, he opted to stay close to home in part due to the Aztecs being the only FBS school to offer him. Now, after three excellent years including a Ray Guy trophy win this past season, San Diego State is looking smart for landing Araiza.
His 2021 season saw him average 51.2 yards per punt, which broke an NCAA record. He also broke the NCAA record for most punts in a season that went over 60 yards, and had several that traveled over 80(!) yards. In addition to being a ridiculously good punter, Araiza was the Aztecs’ primary field goal kicker, hitting 50 of his 68 attempts over three years. Araiza wants to become the first player since 1981 to be a team’s primary kicker and punter, but it seems unlikely. Still, he is almost certainly going to be the first specialist drafted this year,
Jordan Stout, Penn State
Jordan Stout didn’t gain much traction coming out of high school, so he stayed local and walked on as a punter for the Virginia Tech Hokies. After redshirting his first year, Stout saw time as the Hokies’ kickoff man, where he kicked a touchback on 60 of his 71 kickoffs.
Still, Stout wanted more playing time, which prompted his transfer to Penn State. His first year saw him once again in a kickoffs-only role - where he finished fourth in the nation in touchbacks - but expanded to punting the next year. In two seasons as the Nittany Lions’ punter, he averaged 44.5 yards per punt, earning his All-Big 10 honors this past season.
Jake Camarda, Georgia
Growing up in the Bulldogs’ backyard, Jake Camarda was a star punter in high school. That led to him being the top-ranked punter in his class, which also gained the attention of his hometown team. Naturally, he opted to stay close to home and play for a college football powerhouse.
Camarda immediately became the Bulldogs’ starting punter, but when you’re consistently fielding a team as talented as Georgia has been, punt opportunities are far and few between. The 2019 season was the only year in which he logged more than 50 punts. Still, Camarda was very effective in his opportunities, averaging at least 46 yards a punt in each of the last three seasons.
John Haggerty, Western Kentucky
John Haggerty is the latest and greatest example of Australians coming to America and enjoying success in the punting game. Haggerty’s first two seasons seeing action for the Hilltoppers were solid, averaging 45.8 yards per punt on 101 punts. But the eligibility freeze due to COVID-19 allowed him to stick around one more year.
That worked out for him, as he improved significantly. He averaged a stellar 48.7 yards per punt throughout his final year in Western Kentucky. The knock, though, is that he only punted 33 times due to the Hilltoppers having one of the better offenses in the nation. That doesn’t detract from how much better Haggerty looked, and he should get plenty of attention from teams looking to improve their punt team.
Blake Hayes, Illinois
Haggerty isn’t the only Aussie punter in this draft, as Illinois’ Blake Hayes hails from Melbourne. Hayes committed to Illinois in large part due to their academic prestige, and he went on to become one of the team’s best students in terms of GPA.
Hayes was also an impact punter from the start, and he spent five seasons punting for the Illini. Due to the team’s consistent struggles on the field, that meant plenty of punts, with just one season of less than 50 punts. Throughout his college career, his averages increased every single year, reaching 45.1 yards per punt his final season. He also ended up breaking nearly every punting record in school history.
Cal Adomitis, Pittsburgh
Long snappers hardly ever get their time in the spotlight, but Cal Adomitis was an exception at Pitt. He became the Panthers’ starting long snapper as a true freshman back in 2017 and kept that role for all five years with the school, being voted a team captain in 2021. He was even named a first-team All-American this past year and got invited to the Senior Bowl.
Keegan Markgraf, Utah
Keegan Markgraf hails from Ontario, Canada and initially committed to play at Central Michigan. However, after not playing at all in his first two years there, Markgraf transferred to Utah, where he became the starting long snapper by the end of his first season with the Utes. His penultimate season saw him named a finalist for the Patrick Mannelly Long Snapper award. Unfortunately, his 2021 season was cut short due to injury, but he still has a realistic shot at landing somewhere in the NFL.
Daniel Cantrell, Boise State
Daniel Cantrell was born and raised in Boise, Idaho and thus joined the Broncos as a walk-on when he was unable to secure an athletic scholarship anywhere. After redshirting his first year on campus, Cantrell became Boise State’s starting long snapper. He quickly developed a reputation for laying big hits on the punt returner, which led to him being awarded a scholarship. Cantrell finished his time in Boise as one of the more respected members of their program, and now he has a chance to find work in the NFL.