Taylor Mehlhaff is one of a chosen few — a kicker taken in the NFL draft. But the University of Wisconsin kicker still isn’t guaranteed a job come this fall.
First, he has to come out on top in a competition with fellow New Orleans kicker Martin Gramatica, and he begins his trek toward training camp during rookie camp this weekend. Mehlhaff said he has no problem with some competition.
“I just have an athlete’s mentality that I bring to the table,” Mehlhaff said. “Not only is that an edge over other guys, but physically with my kickoff I really feel like if you put me one-on-one with somebody, I can beat them out, and I feel very confident with my field goals.”
New Orleans took Mehlhaff in the sixth round. He was the first kicker chosen in the 2008 draft. Of course, being a kicker and being selected is a mean feat. In the past five years, only about a dozen kickers have been selected in the draft.
Saints head coach Sean Payton said the chance of keeping both Gramatica and Mehlhaff is there, but right now, he’s focusing on two kickers competing for one spot.
“I really look at two guys that will come in here, and it’s probably not unlike most camps where you have competition,” Payton said. “In this case, you have the young player coming in with the veteran already here.”
Payton is already happy with Gramatica’s abilities and drafting a young kicker is “never an indictment of any of your current guys,” Payton said. “We’re trying to improve the New Orleans Saints.”
Mehlhaff was a good match, Payton said. The South Dakota native had worked out with the team a week before the draft and impressed Payton with his leg strength.
But for Payton, it all boils down to one thing: “They’re going to have to be able to kick field goals.”
Mehlhaff views leg strength as a way to separate top-tier kickers from the rest, not field goal performance. Among top kickers, he said, field goal ability is roughly the same, but leg strength can make a kicker stand out.
“The kickoffs are becoming premium, and it is getting more and more important,” Mehlhaff said. “You look at guys like Devin Hester and (Josh) Cribbs up in Cleveland, these returners are getting better and better. You need to have a good kickoff team, and it all starts with the kicker.”
Gramatica turned the corner last year, Payton said, when he began making important kicks for the team. He said research shows the Saints that Mehlhaff has the same potential.
“I think the job description is to be accurate and to be able to convert drives, be it on long field goals or short field goals, and then also as a kickoff guy,” he said. “I think you take the combination.”
Mehlhaff attributes his kicking ability in part to his high school days, when he played multiple sports and was an all-around athlete. Back then he was a quarterback who ran track and played baseball and hockey.
His kicking skill developed when he played soccer, he said. He made his school’s varsity squad as a seventh-grader. His focus shifted to kicking during his senior year, he said, when he began to think about college — and the size of the crowd.
He chose to pursue football because he wanted to attend a Division I school instead of a Division II or III school.
“I’m big on atmosphere of the game, and I grew up going to Division I football games and that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to play in front of those crowds, and I thrive in those situations.”