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Ravens' Justin Tucker, Saints' Wil Lutz lead NFL's top 10 kickers

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Think about breathing. Now exhale and inhale naturally for the next 60 seconds.

It won't happen until that persistent nagging sensation vacates your mind, freeing your body's vital organs to operate without the unwanted stress of overthinking.

This is the challenge that has bedeviled NFL kickers ever since the toe-bangers of the early 20th century gave way to full-time, soccer-style specialists in the 1960s: a momentary loss of confidence often triggers a lapse in fundamentals brought on by overcompensation.

The pressure-packed nature of the position demands more of a pre-kick mental vacuum than the more celebrated mental toughness required of other upper-echelon athletes.

No one understands this salient fact of crunch-time life better than 24th-year veteran Adam Vinatieri, the sport's all-time leading scorer and a mortal lock to join Jan Stenerud and Morten Andersen as the only kickers elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"Kicking at this level is all about how you handle pressure," Vinatieri explained in an eye-opening 2007 New York Times article from Michael Lewis. "We're on an island; everyone is watching us. It's not like some play where only the coaches who can see the film can tell who screwed up. The difference between kickers is, can you do it when the lights are on?"

As coaching legend Bill Parcells once put it, "kicking is a results-oriented business." The higher the standards, the lower the patience.

The stakes have never been higher at a spotlight position that has seen the success rate skyrocket from Stenerud's career conversion average of 66.8% to the current league-wide standard of 85%.

Colts coach Frank Reich's patience has been put to a stiff early season test, as Vinatieri has struggled mightily with a severe case of the yips -- a tendency to overanalyze each kick in relation to the previous mistake. Going back to the end of the 2018 campaign, the 46-year-old gold standard has failed to find the uprights on five of his last 14 PATs and three of his last six field-goal tries.

After watching video of Vinatieri's three missed kicks in the season opener against the Chargers, Andersen assured The Athletic's Mike Sando that there is nothing obviously wrong from a physical standpoint. The NFL's second-leading scorer in history fully expects his only statistical superior to bounce back in the coming weeks.

"First of all, it's a blip on the radar screen when you talk about Adam's career," Andersen explained. "It's not an ideal way to start, but unless something is wrong physically, I think Adam will figure that out."

At a time when teams are beginning to utilize golf's TrackMan radar to measure a kicker's apex, ball speed, distance traveled and launch angle, teammates and fans are still operating under the assumption that the primary directive is as effortless as shooting a free throw. As evidenced by the widely held belief that a soccer star can step right into the role after clearing 55 yards in practice, there is a stunning disregard for the physical talent, honed skill set and psychological forcefield required to succeed with consistency from varying gridiron angles in the face of a pass rush with the hopes of the entire team, coaching staff and fan base resting on the kicker's shoulders.

"Next to the quarterback, a coach's confidence wavers so much with who the kicker is," one NFC executive told Lewis in 2007. "If a linebacker or a running back or a wide receiver has a bad game, it's, 'Keep him in there. He'll be fine.' If a coach loses just a little bit of confidence in a kicker, you're making a change."

There's no test at the NFL Scouting Combine capable of predicting when the game's most highly regarded kickers will see their confidence dip and their fundamentals backslide.

With Vinatieri's recent woes in mind, let's examine the league's best kickers as of Week 3, 2019:

1
Justin Tucker
K
Ravens

While Vinatieri is certainly the most accomplished kicker in NFL history, Tucker is easily the all-time leader in field-goal percentage (90.3%). In fact, Tucker has established a new standard for accuracy and distance since landing in Baltimore as an undrafted free agent out of Texas back in 2012. Not bad for a specialist who plies his trade outdoors on real grass in the AFC North elements. John Harbaugh, the lone active head coach with a background primarily in special teams, has stated several times that Tucker is " the best in the history of the game." With the game on the line, Harbaugh knows he has an inherent advantage on every opponent: once his offense crosses midfield, the Ravens are in reasonable Tucker territory.

2
Wil Lutz
K
Saints

Harbaugh knows kickers. It was originally his Baltimore outfit that signed Lutz as an undrafted free agent out of Georgia State in 2016. When Lutz inevitably failed to unseat Tucker in training camp, New Orleans plucked him off the waiver wire, making him the 11th kicker in the first 11 seasons of the Sean Payton era. Lutz has been a wunderkind ever since, rivaling Tucker for All-Pro honors in 2018. Owner of a booming leg, he's missed just three kicks over 50 yards since the start of the 2017 season. His dramatic 58-yard boot versus the Texans in the "Monday Night Football" opener was the longest field goal in the final 10 seconds of a season-opening game since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.

3
Greg Zuerlein
K
Rams

Selected in the sixth round of the 2012 draft, Zuerlein was taking aim at David Akers' single-season points record (166) when he was struck down by a herniated disc injury that left him nine points shy with two games remaining in the 2017 season. In Sean McVay's brilliant debut campaign, those nine points were one game's worth of production for Zuerlein, who boasts one of the strongest legs -- and nicknames (take your pick: Greg The Leg or Young GZ) -- in the game. To his credit, Zuerlein has drilled 90.9% of his field-goal attempts while battling through back, groin and foot injuries over the past three years.

4
Harrison Butker
K
Chiefs

The Panthers attempted to stash Butker on their practice squad after the seventh-round pick failed to beat out veteran Graham Gano in the summer of 2017. The Chiefs swooped in for the steal two weeks later, when Cairo Santos went down with a groin injury. Butker was a hero from the start in Kansas City, winning his debut with a 43-yard field goal versus the Redskins in a Monday night nail-biter. He earned a lucrative five-year, $20 million contract extension after drilling a now-forgotten 39-yard field goal to send the AFC Championship Game to overtime last January. With a career mark of 90.4% on just 73 career field-goal attempts, Butker may just make a run at Tucker's accuracy record over the next decade.

5
Robbie Gould
K
49ers

Gould's career field-goal mark of 87.5% stands second only to Tucker's 90.3% among all kickers in history with 100 or more attempts. Considering the accelerated evolution of NFL kicking accuracy, that's quite an accomplishment for an undrafted free agent who entered the league back in 2005. The rare kicker with enough leverage to request a trade as a franchise player, Gould was unsuccessful in his offseason attempt to land back in Chicago as the Bears' special teams savior. At this stage of his 15-year career, the one question is whether he can connect consistently from beyond 50 or 55 yards.

6
Stephen Gostkowski
K
Patriots

Vinatieri's worthy successor in New England, Gostkowski wore the NFL's kicking crown for the better part of a decade before Tucker ascended to the throne in 2016. An all-weather stalwart, the 35-year-old ranks third all-time with an 87.3% mark on 426 career regular-season field-goal attempts. The cause for pause is his recent track record in the postseason, where he has missed an alarming four PATs in the past four playoff runs.

7
Aldrick Rosas
K
Giants

This is where kickers come from. More than half of the league's current kickers were freely available, signed off the street or added via waivers from the time training camps closed in mid-August through the end of conference championship games in mid-January. Undrafted out of Southern Oregon in 2016, Rosas spent his rookie year languishing on the tryout circuit after failing to beat out reliable Ryan Succop in Tennessee. Signed after the season to a futures deal often reserved for practice squad members, Rosas converted just 72% of his field goals (31st in the league) and 87% of his PATs (last in the league) in his first year with the Giants. The most improved special teamer in the league in 2018, Rosas earned Pro Bowl honors after nailing 32 of 33 (97.0%) field goals and 31 of 32 (96.9%) PATs.

8
Steven Hauschka
K
Bills

Hauschka is similar to Gould in that his old team (the Seahawks) almost immediately regretted letting him walk out the door in favor of an unknown quantity. A single-game record holder (three field goals!) with the UFL's Las Vegas Locomotives back in 2010, Hauschka has gone on to earn a reputation as one of the NFL's most reliable cold-weather kickers. Plying his trade in the unfriendly environs of Seattle and Buffalo, Hauschka's career average of 86.5% (fifth-best of all-time) stacks up well against the dome specialists of his era.

9
Jason Myers
K
Seahawks

Jets fans are still bemoaning their team's failure to match the four-year, $15.45 million deal that lured the AFC's 2018 Pro Bowl kicker to Seattle this past offseason. Along with Rosas and Lutz, Myers threatened Tucker's perennial All-Pro nod last season when he nailed 33 of 36 field goals, including a league-best six conversions from 50 yards or beyond. Is Myers here to stay as a top-10 kicker? He was unceremoniously jettisoned by Jacksonville in October 2017 after missing 11 of 49 attempts over a two-year span. Who knows how long the light stays on?

10
Joey Slye
K
Panthers

Undrafted as Virginia Tech's all-time leading scorer in 2018, Slye drew sniffs from the Buccaneers and Browns but ultimately went unsigned as a rookie. He finally landed with the Giants this past offseason only to be cut on the brink of training camp in late July. Brought in as a camp leg in Carolina, Slye forced his way into the picture with booming three-pointers of 54, 55 and 59 yards in preseason action. The Panthers were so enamored of Slye's potential that they opted to send veteran Graham Gano to season-ending injured reserve with what coach Ron Rivera deemed a " tired" plant leg. It's early enough that Slye's pro career could veer in any number of directions, but he's already gaining notice for a powerful leg that might just match those of Tucker and Zuerlein for field-goal distance and kickoff prowess.

Knocking on the door: Mason Crosby, Green Bay Packers; Ka'imi Fairbairn, Houston Texans; Dustin Hopkins, Washington Redskins; Josh Lambo, Jacksonville Jaguars; Brett Maher, Dallas Cowboys; Matt Prater, Detroit Lions.

Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.

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