Saturday night’s preseason game against the Las Vegas Raiders was not the first time that Matt Gay helped bail out the LA Rams. It was last season that Gay brought some stability to one of the most instable kicking situations in the NFL, converting 14-of-16 field goal attempts with 16-of-16 extra points, following a combined effort of 10-of-14 and 22-of-26 by the two kickers who preceded him.
Then on Saturday against the Raiders, Gay plugged what could have been a very damaging hole on special teams by punting the ball four times for 168 yards with virtually no miscues.
It’s understandable then why Sean McVay might feel grateful for Gay’s surprising efforts as a punter this weekend, but if Rams fans are beginning to feel queasy about the field goal situation like it’s 2020 all over again, that would make sense too.
After missing an extra point in the first preseason game against the LA Chargers, Gay’s second field goal attempt on Saturday was low and blocked by a Raiders defensive lineman. The situation may not feel dire because Gay has felt so entrenched at the kicking position since the end of last season — LA made no efforts to bring in competition, only keeping Austin MacGinnis around until cutting him last week — but part of that must have something to do with the same feeling you might have with the first person you date after the worst relationship of your life.
The Rams had a mostly-happy marriage to Greg Zuerlein, then McVay clearly spent some time “on the apps” after the divorce by running through a few one-night stands, and the mere fact that Gay wasn’t disposable may have felt like the same as being on the road to another long-term relationship. But it’s not as though Gay came baggage-free.
A fifth round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2019, Gay had enough setbacks during his rookie season for the team to open up the competition again in 2020, and he was eventually cut in favor of Ryan Succop, which led to spending a couple months on the Indianapolis Colts practice squad prior to joining LA. Though Succop doesn’t kick for distance — he’s made one kick over 50 yards in the last two years — a high-scoring team like the Buccaneers was looking for consistency under 45 yards. Succop converted 64-of-70 extra points, including playoffs, and he made 37-of-40 field goals.
The Rams surely plan to be a high-scoring offense with Matthew Stafford now installed at quarterback. Do they have more confidence in Gay than what Bruce Arians and the Bucs had last September 5th when they released him?
While it can be difficult to identify which kickers who become “hot commodities” during the offseason will continue their quality play in the regular season — consider that the Rams were on the kicker market for essentially all of 2020 and came away with Sam Sloman, Austin MacGinnis, Lirim Hajrullahu, Kai Forbath, and Gay — there are always those who seem to move teams during the season who then go onto great things.
Younghoe Koo bounced around the league for a few years prior to his Pro Bowl season with the Atlanta Falcons in 2020; Succop was an available veteran last September and now he’s feeling quite comfortable with the reigning Super Bowl winners; Harrison Butker was a seventh round pick of the Panthers in 2017 but he was cut and picked up by the KC Chiefs, where he’s been one of the most reliable in the league after four years; and Carolina went with incumbent Graham Gano and he made the Pro Bowl that season.
But Gano missed all of 2019 with injury and the Panthers released him last year. The New York Giants signed Gano and he did so well last season that they gave him a new three-year, $14.4 million contract in 2021. There’s no budging Gano from his spot and that means that one of New York’s top standouts of training camp has nowhere to sign his name on the Giants’ final 53-man roster.
It appears that as happens sometimes, New York will be able to trade a kicker for a draft pick to a team that needs a kicker, of which there are always at least a few.
Could the Rams be one of those few? And would Ryan Santoso be the long-term answer they’ve been hoping to find? If he is, then ironically the LA Rams would be calling upon one of the few special teamers in history who is known for doing what Gay did on Saturday night: kicking and punting.
One player already drawing significant trade interest from around the league: #Giants K Ryan Santoso. Teams have been calling and he could be dealt as the season gets closer. His path is blocked by Graham Gano in NYG, but he’s shown himself to be starter caliber.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 22, 2021
Following a redshirt year in 2013, Ryan Santoso became the field goal kicker at Minnesota for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Though he was automatic on extra points (as most kickers tend to be on those gimmes that used to be in the NFL), the team moved Santoso to punter in 2016. The massive 6’5, 258 lbs Santoso therefore split his college football career, spending the first half on field goals and the second half on punts.
Santoso signed with the Detroit Lions after the 2018 draft, but the team waived him at final cuts in each of the next two training camps. He briefly spent time in the CFL in 2019 before being signed by the Tennessee Titans late that year to help on kickoffs for three games. Santoso went back to the CFL, but was back on the market when they cancelled their season due to the pandemic in 2020.
That was probably good for Santoso, as he spent most of last season on the Giants’ practice squad and he’s now had an entire normal offseason to try and prove himself as a valuable special teams weapon. And that’s really what Santoso is, more so than being just a kicker, according to his current special teams coordinator.
“He can do whatever. Ryan can punt, kick — I’m serious, he’s very talented and he’s punted in NFL games before, he’s kicked off, he can kick field goals, so Ryan is a very talented young man,” special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey said last week. “Ryan has great upside, he’s a good man, he works his tail off. That’s what this league is all about, it’s about competition and hopefully Ryan can do enough where he can get a job, whether it’s here or somewhere else.”
But Santoso is not the only kicker generating trade rumors around the league. As is often the case with John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens, special teams is more like the second phase of the game than the third, and backup kicker Jake Verity has become near-automatic when called upon. As incumbent Justin Tucker is an elite player at his position, Verity won’t make the Ravens, but could potentially help another team looking to steal away a long-term solution.
However, it’s always a buyer beware situation with kickers. The Minnesota Vikings sent a fifth round pick to the Ravens in 2019 for backup Kaare Vedvik after a strong offseason showing, but he was released only weeks later and is currently battling for position in the CFL, much like Santoso once was.
Matt Gay could be safe today, but he’s also in a position where it only takes one bad regular season game before it feels like you’re starting to ask the question of, “Who’s available?”
Teams may not get a better answer to that question than the names who are on the market today and not necessarily in December. Should the Rams be calling about any of these other options?