POST PROLOGUE: THE FIRST AFTER-SEASON EDITION OF THE STEELERS ROUNDTABLE ON TRIBLIVE RADIO HAS AIRED. RALPH PAULK AND I OFFER KNOWLEDGEABLE STEELERS INSIGHTS. MARK KABOLY TALKS SOME, TOO. GIVE IT A LISTEN BY CLICKING HERE.
The kicker quandary the Steelers faced for a two-month span in 2015 was that they couldn’t find one.
In 2016, it’s that they have too many.
“Two very capable kickers,” coach Mike Tomlin said this week, “is a good problem to have.”
In actuality, the Steelers have THREE kickers on their offseason roster after inking Ty Long to a reserve/futures contract the other day. No disrespect to Long – who was considered one of the better kickers to be draft-eligible last year and has a strong leg – but he was brought in as an offseason leg. It would take quite the run of highly-unlikely circumstance for Long to be seriously considered to open the 2016 regular season as the Steelers’ kicker.
No, the debate will be Shaun Suisham or Chris Boswell. Both are liked within the organization and both have made some clutch kicks over their Steelers tenures. But, ultimately, only one will stick with the team past the first week of September.
The smart money is on Boswell – for economic reasons. He is under contract at $525,000 this coming season with the same salary-cap hit. Suisham, meanwhile, is scheduled to make $2.4 million with a cap number of about $3.5 million.
Easy, right? But it’s not necessarily that simple.
For one, the economics are clouded by the fact that cutting Suisham carries with it some “dead money” that will count against the cap. If he’s cut before June 1 (which has pretty much zero chance of happening), the Steelers would actually be paying MORE at the kicking position by choosing Boswell than they did if they chose Suisham. (Boswell costs no dead money if he is cut). But even if Suisham is cut after June 1, the 2016 cap charge for him is more than $1.1 million, meaning that the 2016 expenditure the Steelers use for kickers would be more than $1.6 million (counting Boswell’s salary) – not to mention a 2017 charge will be applied. Viewed that way, the cap situation isn’t as much of a factor.
A trade of Suisham – seemingly the best-case scenario for all parties – carries with it similar salary-cap implications as a release. At least the Steelers get something in return, right? Well, there’s no guarantee another team will give up even a late-round pick for a 34-year-old who recently had a major knee injury (Suisham sustained a torn ACL and meniscus in his left knee making a tackle during the preseason opener in August). The Steelers, ironically, might serve as the cautionary tale for this: They gave up a sixth-round pick for 33-year-old kicker Josh Scobee late in training camp – he lasted four games and was bad enough to get cut.
At very least, for this to play out, Suisham will have to have a strong preseason –in terms of health, in making kicks and in showing leg strength on kickoffs. But then if that happens, will it make the Steelers think twice about letting go of a guy who was so good for you for 4 ½ seasons? (Counting playoffs, Suisham has made 63 of his past 68 field-goal attempts; he is a perfect 172-for-172 on extra points as a Steeler).
Also, let me be clear: Boswell was good. Very, very good. He made 29 of 32 field goals (oddly enough, the exact same stat line Suisham had the year before), and perhaps more telling, he clearly earned the trust and respect of his coaches and teammates.
But is a 14-game sample size enough? It’s a question that at least is worth asking.
At 25 (he’s 24 until March 16), Boswell is nine years younger than Suisham. He’ll also remain under team control (and, likely, very cheap) for another two seasons beyond 2016. Suisham is due to earn that aforementioned $2.4 million salary through 2018, with decreasing “dead money” penalties for cutting him before each season.
As you might expect, the individuals involved aren’t saying too much illuminating about how they expect things to play out.
“I have no idea,” Boswell said. “I feel like I improved a little bit. I think there is a lot out there I can improve on. Whether it’s here or somewhere else, I have no idea.”
Suisham’s only priority right now remains getting back to health.
“We will see where we go from here and continue to rehab and work to getting back to kicking,” he said.
“It’s a long process and I won’t know the answer until I start to kick some footballs again… Outside of my ACL, I had a significant injury to my meniscus that I’m trying to baby through the process a little bit right now; hopefully it heals itself the way it needs to.”
One last factor to consider: Kickoffs. It’s the forgotten component of the NFL placekicker’s job description – but it remains important. To be honest, neither Boswell not Suisham is particularly stellar at this aspect of the game, at least relative to other NFL kickers. Just 26 of Boswell’s 74 kickoffs went for touchbacks. While that’s an oversimplification of kickoff leg strength, that rate (35.13 percent) is near the bottom of the league – but it virtually matches Suisham’s 2014 (35.95 percent).
By comparison, Baltimore’s Justin Tucker, for example, had touchbacks 85 percent of the time. That can be quite a weapon against a team with a stronger returner; teams very rarely open a drive outside their own 20.
It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out once Suisham is back to full health.