While Brett Favre flirted with retirement year after year, the Green Bay Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers as the heir apparent seasons before his number was finally called upon. It was a case of going from an all-time franchise great to another.
Few teams are ever fortunate enough to replace a top player at their position with another of the same caliber - Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck is another duo that comes to mind.
The Los Angeles Rams faced a similar transition at kicker when Greg Zuerlein, who was drafted by the team in the sixth round, decided in 2020 to follow his special team coordinator - John Fassel - to the Dallas Cowboys. During the subsequent draft Los Angeles was able to trade back and acquire an additional seventh round selection, which they used to pick Sam Sloman of Miami University of Ohio (Sean McVay’s alma mater).
Sloman competed with Lirim Hajrullahu and Austin MacGinnis during training camp. All three kickers reportedly struggled throughout camp, but ultimately the team elected to keep Sloman headed into the regular season.
But Sloman struggled out of the gate, converting only 8-of-11 field goal attempts (long of 42) and only 18-of-21 extra points. He lasted only seven games as a member of the Rams after missing 6 of his first 32 kicks (19%).
LA turned to Kai Forbath for a two-game stint. Then-punter Johnny Hekker recommended the team sign Matt Gay off the practice squad of the Indianapolis Colts. Gay had been drafted in the fifth round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just the year prior.
While it was a bumpy ride to get to that point, this was the Rams’ Favre to Rodgers and Manning to Luck triumph - and it all seemingly came at the recommendation of their former punter.
I know kicker discourse is, yeah, but we haven't come close to talking about how (a) good Matt Gay has been and (b) how fortuitous the timing was for the Rams to pick him up.— Bukayo Saka Liker (@3k_) December 20, 2022
Gay has been as reliable as kickers come in his three seasons with the Rams - and perhaps his biggest moment came last season in the playoffs when he hit the game-winning field goal to boot the Buccaneers, the team that drafted him and decided to move on, out of the playoffs:
Matt Gay entered the NFL as 2019 5th round draft pick of the Bucs. He lasted just one season, was waived and later signed with the Rams.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 23, 2022
He became a Pro Bowler this year and just hit the game-winning kick back in Tampa Bay.
Always keep pushing forward.
2020 (7 games): 38-of-40 total; 1-of-1 from 50+; long of 51 yards
2021 (21 games): 99-of-104 total; 4-of-6 from 50+; long of 55 yards; selected to Pro Bowl
2022 (15 games): 53-of-56 total; 7-of-9 from 50+; long of 58 yards; snubbed from Pro Bowl
Gay’s performance from 50 yards out sets himself apart from most kickers in the NFL, and only Daniel Carlson (Raiders; 9-of-11), Graham Gano (Giants; 8-of-9), and Brett Maher (Cowboys; 9-of-11) rival his production from long range in 2022.
Perhaps his best kick of the season came two weeks ago against the Packers at frigid Lambeau Field with temperatures in the single digits - Gay nailed a 55-yarder that never left any doubt.
Longest field goals in Lambeau history when temperature is under 25 degrees:— John Breech (@johnbreech) December 20, 2022
Matt Gay: 55 yards
Greg Joseph: 51 (Week 17, 2021)
Mason Crosby: 50 (Week 14, 2018)
Gay's kick also tied for 3rd longest FG in Lambeau history regardless of temp #Ramspic.twitter.com/n2xik8tNmd
As great as the marriage between Gay and the Rams seems to be, there’s a non-zero chance it comes to an end with Gay slated to hit unrestricted free agency at the conclusion of the season.
What can the Rams afford at kicker? Is Gay too expensive?
Justin Tucker remains the gold standard at the position and sets the bar in terms of his average salary per year - he is currently at $6M. Chris Boswell of the Steelers is next at $5M, followed by a dozen or so who are above $4M on average (per OverTheCap):
- Justin Tucker, Ravens: $6.0M
- Chris Boswell, Steelers: $5.0M
- Younghoe Koo, Falcons: $4.9M
- Graham Gano, Giants: $4.7M
- Daniel Carlson, Raiders: $4.6M
- Ka’imi Fairbairn, Texans: $4.4M
- Jason Sanders, Dolphins: $4.4M
- Brandon McManus, Broncos: $4.3M
- Mason Crosby, Packers: $4.3M
- Harrison Butker, Chiefs: $4.1M
- Will Lutz, Saints: $4.1M
- Jake Elliott, Eagles: $4.0M
- Ryan Succop, Buccaneers: $4.0M
Based on age and timing of when the existing contracts were signed, there are a few players that act as close comparisons to where Gay’s market value currently sits: Koo, Calson, Fairbairn, Sanders, and Butker. These comparisons probably put Gay in the $4.5m to $5.5M range, though he’s a younger kicker with three years of reliability and a bidding war on the open market could push his price tag higher.
Why Gay is the right man for Rams in 2023 and beyond
The Rams served a brief stint in kicker hell when they attempted to replace a franchise great in Zuerlein with Sloman, et al. Every single NFL weekend we see games come down to a last minute field goal, and having a guy you trust in those moments could be the difference in being a part of the playoffs or be left looking from the outside in.
Gay has demonstrated over the last three seasons that he’s reliable and capable of being one of the top kickers in the NFL, though he might not ever shake the reputation or labels he earned during his early struggles in Tampa Bay.
While the Rams have limited resources this offseason in terms of both draft capital and salary cap, pinching pennies and trying to save money at the kicker position is not the correct move for a team that expects to compete in 2023. While Gay is likely to command a top-tier contract in order to stay in Los Angeles, there’s not a large gap between what the rest of the NFL teams are paying (above $4M) and what it would likely take to retain the kicker that helped you reach and win a Super Bowl.
I’m not saying Les Snead and the Rams should open up their wallet books and give a kicker a blank check, but Gay has earned the right to be LA’s kicker of the future and deserves to be paid accordingly.
A contract extension for Gay should be towards the top of the 2023 offseason priorities list.