In the hustle and bustle of last week's labor-related drama, we failed to note two NFC North teams have each positioned themselves to part ways with a long-time specialist who could be more difficult to replace than you might realize.
MaynardThis much we can say for sure: Whenever NFL owners and players agree on a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), Minnesota Vikings place-kicker Ryan Longwell and Chicago Bears punter Brad Maynard will be unrestricted free agents. Nothing would prevent them from re-signing at that point, but typically NFL teams get their priority players under contract before the market opens.
There have been no reports of negotiations with Longwell or Maynard, let alone the framework of an agreement, as we discussed in Tuesday's SportsNation chat. Read into that what you will.
Maynard is 37 and Longwell will turn 37 in August, but gray hair at their positions just as often connotes aptitude as it does failing ability. It's true that Maynard's 35.2-yard net average ranked 30th among NFL punters last season, but he did drop 24 punts inside the 20-yard line. Veteran savvy and experience are as valuable to kicking specialists as any position on the game, and Maynard's career total of 407 punts downed inside the 20 are the second-most in the NFL over the past 35 seasons.
If you're the Bears, you might be able to make a statistical argument to consider additional options. Will they find someone they can trust as much as Maynard? I'm not sure. But in Longwell's case, you can't even make a statistical case for his ouster.
Longwell, in fact, is coming off two of the best seasons of his career. He converted 26 of 28 field goal attempts in 2009 and 17 of 18 last season, a combined conversion percentage of 93.4. Thanks to the pro-football-reference.com database, we can put those numbers in context: Longwell has two of the 24 best seasons by an NFL place kicker, based on conversion percentage of 15 or more attempts, since the 1970 merger.
In terms of field-goal kicking, at least, there has been nothing to suggest Longwell is close to the end of his career. So why would the Vikings replace him?
Again, I'm not certain they intend to. But it's possible they want better kickoffs, a concern that led to an ill-fated decision to sign kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd. Perhaps they have identified another free agent, or a potential draft pick, that could make them younger at the position.
But anyone who watched the Vikings during the gap between Gary Anderson's final season in 2002 and Longwell's arrival in 2006 know how difficult it is to identify and develop a reliable place-kicker. Game management changes dramatically when you know your kicker is nearly automatic from inside 50 yards, which Longwell has been in recent seasons.
Some day, the Vikings will have to replace Longwell. Perhaps they'll time it, albeit arbitrarily, to his age and now-expired contract. But it should be pointed out that some of the NFL's best place-kickers are about the same age as Longwell, from David Akers (36) to Adam Vinatieri (38) to John Kasay (41) to Jay Feely (34).
I realize the Vikings have some significant decisions to make this offseason. Vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman has talked about fielding a younger team in 2011. But parting ways with a 90-percent field goal kicker just because he is 37? Not sure about that one -- especially when an heir apparent isn't yet, uh, apparent.