Hours after this article published, Mitch Ewald was waived by the Denver Broncos as they acquired kicker Brandon McManus in trade. Full story here; our original article on Ewald is below.
Against the Houston Texans Saturday, Matt Prater was clearly off. Prater was guilty of taking chunks of the turf with him during his successful 32-yard field goal in the first quarter, making ugly PATs, and missing a 49-yard field goal. A 49-yard field goal certainly isn't a ‘gimme', but it's not what Broncos fans are used to from Prater.
Meanwhile, Mitch Ewald missed a 36-yard field goal during Saturday's game, and at the time all I could think was "why is Ewald even out there?"
Many were surprised when the Broncos signed Ewald in late June. Why sign a kicker when we have the reigning record holder for longest field goal? The guy who last season was 25 for 26 on field goals (96.2%) and 75 for 75 (100% in case you're bad at math) on PATs. Clearly Ewald was just going to be a "camp leg", right? Wrong. Clearly the Broncos knew they had a problem with Prater. Over the weekend, we learned that Prater was being suspended for four games after violating the NFL substance abuse policy.
"Last game, I obviously didn't have my best game," Prater said in an apology Monday. "It's been going for a few months. We've been waiting to find out what the verdict was going to be. So it's been going for a while and I actually just found out right before the game that I was going to be suspended, so that definitely affected my performance Saturday."
While we can all debate the details around the punishment and the punitive policies of the NFL, the suspension is real and the Broncos need a new kicker. And they need one right now.
Can Mitch Ewald be the next man up for the Broncos at kicker?
So far Ewald has been more entertaining to watch on his Twitter account than he has been in training camp or preseason. The 23-year-old rookie out of Indiana caught the attention of MHR's Jon Heath with his #playingwithpeyton tweets that showed how excited (seriously, really excited) he was to play on the same team as future HOFer Peyton Manning. The tweets were silly, dare I say it almost darling, and also seemed completely harmless. It was almost as if Ewald knew he was with the Broncos for just a short time so he was going to enjoy every second of it until he got cut. Now things are much more serious, and luckily Ewald seems to have traded his tweets about how awesome it is to be in Manning's stretch line during practice with tweets about the Little League World Series.
During Saturday night's game with the Houston Texans Ewald missed a 36-yard field goal. There's nothing silly or darling about that - I don't care how bad the turf is currently at Mile High Stadium after a very rainy summer. Hopefully Elway and the front office can work some magic and find a kicker on the waiver wire, but let's take a look at how Ewald has been doing as a Bronco and how he did while he was at Indiana. A quick look through Kaptain Kirk's training camp logs seems to show that Ewald has been routinely inconsistent in his field goal attempts. Not a great start to our story.
In the Broncos first preseason game against the Seahawks, Ewald handled the PAT for the touchdowns scored in the 3rd and 4th quarters which were 33 yards instead of 20 yards due to the NFL preseason experiment of moving back the PATs in the first two preseason games this year. Ewald also kicked a 50 yard touchback in the 3rd quarter and in the 4th quarter had a kickoff for 73 yards which went into the end zone but was returned for 19 yards. In that same game Prater did two kickoffs - one for 50 yards, one for 65 yards - both were touchbacks. Not a bad showing for Ewald in his first game as a Bronco.
In the 2nd Broncos preseason game against the 49ers, Ewald did two kickoffs in the first quarter for Denver. The first was 59 yards to SF 6 - which was returned 29 yards and the second was 66 yards to SF -1 returned for 24 yards. In the 2nd quarter Ewald had a kickoff of 64 yards to SF 1 - returned 32 yards. Ewald successfully kicked an extra point in the 3rd quarter and in the 4th quarter kicked a successful 22 yard field goal, kicked an extra point, and did a 68 yard kickoff to SF -3 which was returned 21 yards.
Prater's kickoffs in that same game were for 65 yards, 64 yards, 61 yards, and 66 yards. For comparison Justin Tucker, the Ravens kicker, averaged about 65-70 yards on his kickoffs in their first preseason game. So Ewald's kickoffs aren't remarkable, but they aren't horrible either. The returns the 49ers were able to get after the kickoffs made the kicks seem worse than they actually were. In 2013 Prater's average kickoffs were 64.8 yards. I think Bronco fans, me included, have it in their minds that any kickoff that isn't a touchback is a failure. Ewald was just a few yards short on many of his kicks to make that happen. However, kickoffs are more than about just total yards. There is a lot of finesse involved as well. Who are you kicking it to, how high is the kick, is the kick catchable, etc. Prater's NFL experience is invaluable in those kind of scenarios.
In the Broncos 3rd preseason game against the Houston Texans Ewald kicked a successful extra point in the second quarter. In the 3rd quarter after Peyton Manning's awesome taunting penalty Ewald had to kick it from the 20 instead of the 35. That kickoff went 80 yards after a helpful bounce (there you go Ewald!) and was returned 26 yards. In the 3rd quarter Ewald had a 65-yard kickoff, which was a touchback. But all anyone remembers is that in the 4th quarter Ewald's 36 yard field goal was no good, wide left. That just can't happen in the regular season.
So what are the stats for NFL kickers anyway?
According to ESPN's 2013 stats, the 32 kickers who were the main kickers for their teams last season (I took out John Potter (WSH) and Shayne Graham (NO) who only had 4 and 2 field goal attempts) the kicker with the lowest Field Goals Made (FGM) to Field Goals Attempted (FGA) percentage was Sebastian Janikowski (OAK) who made only 21 of his 30 attempts (70 %).
Field Goal success rates for all 32 kickers in 2013:
7 kickers 70-79.9 percent
14 kickers 80-89.9
10 kickers 90-94.9
1 kicker was above 95 percent - that's right, it was Matt Prater with 96.2%
27 kickers had a 100 percent for PATs (points after touchdowns), including Prater.
The worst percentage for PATs was from Josh Scobee (JAX) with 95.7 %, but that number is a bit misleading because Jacksonville just had so few touchdowns last season.
Throughout Mitch Ewald's 4 year career at Indiana he made 53 out to 66 field goals (80.3%). His longest field goal was 50 yards.
Ewald was 161 for 162 PATs (99.4%).
Just looking at his senior year (2013) Ewald was 9 out of 11 for field goals (81.8%) and 56-56 PATs (100%).
From a quick look at these statistics, if Ewald was able to convert his college success rate to the NFL (not an easy thing to do at all) he would be an average to below average kicker in the NFL. My guess is that if Ewald ends up as the Broncos kicker for the first few games Gase and Manning will do everything in their power to make sure Ewald's work includes PATs, hopefully lots of them, and as few field goal attempts as possible.
The bigger story is what will happen to Matt Prater after he returns from his suspension. Will he be back to his old reliable self, or will his personal problems be a distraction and make him inconsistent on the field? Even if he is consistent will Elway and the Broncos front office want to risk another Prater suspension in the future? It looks like there are a lot of unknowns for the Broncos Special Teams Unit after the Prater suspension and Norwood's ACL injury. And that makes me very nervous.
Would Ewald be a complete disaster as the Broncos kicker for the four games Prater will miss? Probably not - if the Broncos are playing ahead. But if the games are close - and let's face it, the Colts, Chiefs, Seahawks, and Cardinals are not going to be our easiest games of the season - Ewald could be facing a game-winning (or losing) field goal attempt. Ewald has not shown the consistency in training camp or preseason to feel good about that kind of game situation. I wouldn't feel good about ANY rookie kicker in that situation. Perhaps it's time to find and sign a veteran kicker wherever you can Elway.