Barry Jackson

Here’s one position where the Dolphins took an outside-the-box approach — and it’s working

Dolphins kicker Jason Sanders: ‘This feeling of kicking a game-winning field goal is pretty new’

Miami Dolphins kicker Jason Sanders talks to the media after their 31-28 win over the Chicago Bears in a NFL football game at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, October 14 2018, in Miami Gardens.
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Miami Dolphins kicker Jason Sanders talks to the media after their 31-28 win over the Chicago Bears in a NFL football game at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, October 14 2018, in Miami Gardens.

The last two times Dolphins special teams coordinator and assistant head coach Darren Rizzi went looking for a young kicker who would eventually make the team, he came back to the office with names that were afterthoughts to even some draft analysts who track such things.

Three years ago, it was obscure Andrew Franks, a biomedical engineering student at Division III Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. This year, it was Jason Sanders, who some analysts didn’t even rate among the top five kickers in this year’s draft.

One similarity between the two: Very strong legs, which Rizzi understandably values.

Sanders, drafted by the Dolphins in the seventh round, has rewarded Rizzi’s faith by making all six of his field-goal attempts, including a 47-yarder at the end of overtime to beat Chicago on Sunday.

That kick was the second-longest game-winning field goal in overtime by a rookie since 1974, behind only Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein, who kicked a game-winning 54-yarder as a rookie in 2012.

But here’s the thing about kickers: The guy with the biggest name and the best college accuracy and the most hype sometimes doesn’t pan out. And Rizzi knows that, which explains his outside-the-box thinking.

Roberto Aguayo was so well-regarded out of Florida State that he went 59th overall to the Buccaneers — a shockingly high draft position for a kicker. He’s now unemployed and hasn’t attempted a field goal in a game since going 22 for 31 for Tampa Bay as a rookie in 2016.

Auburn’s Daniel Carlson, widely considered the best kicker in last April’s draft, went in the fifth round to Minnesota in April but was cut after missing one field in regulation and two in overtime in a 29-29 tie with Green Bay on Sept. 16. Carlson, who made 92 of 114 field goals at Auburn (80.7 percent), is also now unemployed.

Meanwhile, the Dolphins are thriving with Sanders, who made only 25 of his 35 field goal attempts at New Mexico (71.4 percent).

So is evaluating kickers simply more than looking at who had the best percentage and the biggest name in college kicking and thinking that would translate?

“The answer is absolutely yes,” Rizzi said. “Jason and [Browns kicker Greg Joseph, who competed with Rizzi in training camp this year] — neither of those guys had necessarily great field goal percentages in college but there’s so much more to that position.

“It’s a very hard transition at the position from college to the NFL, maybe more than people would give it credit for. It may be one of the hardest transitions aside from quarterback because of many reasons. The hashes are different, the football is different, the yardage that you hold the spot of the [kick] from the snap is a lot of times different — another yard. Your operation changes — you have a different holder, a different snapper. There’s a lot of variables that go into it.

“So yes, a lot of times there might be a guy that ‘on paper’ that might seem like the best choice, but when you dive in deeper and you’re looking for guys that transition better from college to the NFL — and I think that’s what we try to do here — is kind of look for the best fits there. I think that’s why sometimes you see maybe the name guys sometimes don’t pan out, because of that transition. It’s not just talent alone at that position that gets it done.”

That’s why Rizzi dug deeper into Sanders’ college misses than simply taking them at face value. He knew snapping issues contributed. He knew he was excellent from long range — 4 for 5 in his college career from that distance. From spending time with him in Albuquerque, N.M. before the draft, he could sense he was mature and grounded.

And his pre-draft private workout confirmed what Rizzi already suspected: He had a dynamite leg.

“I’ve seen him make really long field goals,” Rizzi said. “His leg strength is very good.”

Sanders said teams have not tried to trash-talk him, aside from one Bengals player — he wasn’t sure who it was — who told him after a made field goal last week: “Good kick, but you’ll miss the next one.” (He didn’t try another one.)

So what did Sanders do after his first game-winning NFL field goal? As he detailed with WQAM’s Joe Rose, nothing unusual — a dinner with punter Matt Haack (Haack paid) and calls to his parents and girlfriend.

“There’s nothing you can say to define what it feels like to kick your first game winning field goal in the NFL,” Sanders said.

The Franks experiment wasn’t a disaster but didn’t work out long term: He was 29 of 37 (78.4 percent) in two seasons here before the Dolphins released him 13 months ago to sign Cody Parkey, whose missed 53-yard field goal for the Bears on Sunday allowed the game to continue.

Franks is now with the Orlando team of the new Alliance of American Football.

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