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Evan McPherson Went From Baffling Draft Pick to NFL Playoff Legend

The Bengals’ decision to select a kicker in the fifth round of the 2021 draft went against both popular opinion and decades of football logic. It could go down as one of the keys to a Super Bowl run for the ages.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Cincinnati Bengals were a perennial NFL bottom feeder until a talented and charismatic young player transformed them into one of the sport’s up-and-coming powers. Game after game, the team has leaned on this player as he’s gone from draft pick to star-in-the-making. And game after game, this player has delivered. He is redefining expectations for how dominant someone can be early in his pro career, and he’s powered the Bengals to their first Super Bowl berth since January 1989. His swagger and confidence have made him a Cincinnati legend—not just for now, but potentially for decades to come. I’m talking, of course, about kicker Evan McPherson. I hear that the Bengals have a cool quarterback, too.

McPherson has gone 12-of-12 on field goal attempts in these playoffs. If he hits three field goals in Super Bowl LVI, he will set the all-time NFL record for made field goals in a single postseason. Even if he doesn’t attempt a kick in Sunday’s game, he will still own the league record for most postseason field goals without a miss.

As Cincinnati has eked out win after win, McPherson’s contributions have been crucial. He drilled a 52-yarder as the clock expired in the divisional round against the Titans. He reportedly called his shot by telling teammates, “Looks like we’re going to the AFC championship,” just before taking the field to eliminate the conference’s no. 1 seed.

In a come-from-behind AFC title victory against the Chiefs, McPherson again hit the game-winning kick, this time in overtime. This one came from 31 yards out, but still required some guts to convert:

McPherson gives the Bengals a legitimate advantage in the Super Bowl. Rams kicker Matt Gay has struggled from distance in these playoffs. He came up short on a 47-yard attempt in the divisional round against Tampa Bay—something you rarely see kickers do beyond the high school level in the modern era. Gay also missed a 54-yard attempt in the NFC title game against the 49ers. McPherson could be the difference for a third straight postseason game and launch this Cincinnati run into NFL lore.

The rookie was a vital addition to the Bengals even before he became a playoff hero. He drilled game-winners against the Vikings, Jaguars, and Chiefs, respectively, and was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Month in December. McPherson’s leg is incredible. His 58-yarder against the Broncos is the longest kick in franchise history, and he connected on nine 50-yarders this season—not only more than anyone else in the NFL, but also more than any kicker had hit in their entire Bengals career.

All of this was made possible by the Bengals’ decision to select McPherson in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL draft, with the 149th pick overall. At the time, that move was noticed primarily by people who criticized it. For one, drafting a kicker is historically seen as a waste of a pick. And for another, the Bengals seemingly took McPherson over the best kicker in the class. Cincinnati defied popular opinion and established football logic to land McPherson—and came away with the most unlikely hero of the playoffs.

You’d think that picking a kicker would be the easiest thing to do in the NFL draft. Scouts do not have to think about how a kicker’s game will translate from college to the pros, nor do they have to figure out whether a strong combine showing overrides a player’s lack of production. There is no need for pre-draft interviews or Wonderlic tests, and no concerns about system fit. The kicker has just one job: boot the ball through the uprights. Who is the best at doing that?

Yet the history of NFL teams drafting kickers is abysmal. In the few recent cases when teams have deemed kickers were worthy of high-round picks, they have almost always been wrong. The Buccaneers infamously used a 2016 second-round pick on Roberto Aguayo; he was one of the worst kickers in the league as a rookie, and the Bucs cut him during Hard Knocks filming in 2017. The Jets used a 2005 second-rounder on Mike Nugent; while he managed to hang around the league for 16 seasons, including serving a lengthy stint with Cincinnati, he never emerged as the game-changing player the Jets seemed to think he would be.

The last kicker to go in the first round was Sebastian Janikowski, who went to the Raiders with the 17th pick in the 2000 draft and had a productive 19-season career in the league defined by his powerful leg. But even he is an argument against taking kickers in the first round. The players drafted directly after Janikowski were Shaun Alexander and Chad Pennington—an MVP running back and a solid starting quarterback. Those players were meaningful on every offensive snap. Janikowski was capable of helping the Raiders on one play per drive, after they were already in field goal range.

In an exhaustive study on kickers published in January, Timo Riske of Pro Football Focus argued that Justin Tucker, the league’s best kicker, has the value of a first-round pick. The study observed that kickers are more likely to miss in high-leverage situations, and deduced that a high-quality kicker who can be expected to remain steady in clutch moments represents one of the more valuable non-quarterbacks in the league. But Tucker is the only NFL kicker who truly fits that bill. Most of his peers are far less valuable. “The evidence suggests it shouldn’t be considered a huge mistake to draft a kicker in the fifth round or later,” Riske writes in the study. “But we have to acknowledge that the opportunity cost of drafting a kicker is the potential upside of finding Richard Sherman or George Kittle late in the draft.”

Of course, that presupposes that an NFL team picking a kicker in the late rounds of the draft would take a decent kicker. In reality, most teams that have used late-round selections on kickers have essentially thrown those picks away.

From 2013 to 2020, there were 15 kickers taken in the draft. Fourteen of those lasted two or fewer seasons with the teams that drafted them; five never played a game with those teams. Meanwhile, some of the best kickers of all time went undrafted—five of the top 10 kickers in career field goal percentage are players who entered the league as free agents since 2013 (Tucker, Younghoe Koo, Chris Boswell, Josh Lambo, and Wil Lutz). In a 2020 ESPN interview, Rams special teams coach John Bonamego hypothesized that the kickers who get drafted have extra weight thrown atop their psyches. “You almost do the player a disservice because the expectation level now inside and outside the building becomes almost unrealistic,” Bonamego said. “The kid that’s an undrafted guy, that’s just on the street, now every time when he does anything good, it’s like, ‘OK, yeah, great, maybe we found one here.’”

Clearly, NFL teams aren’t great at identifying kicker talent coming out of college. But what’s strange is that even when teams do draft good kickers, they often don’t realize it. Some of the best kickers in the league—Harrison Butker, Daniel Carlson, and Jake Elliott—were drafted and quickly cut. The Panthers cut Butker to keep Graham Gano, only for Butker to thrive with the Chiefs. The Vikings cut Carlson after two games, only for him to thrive with the Raiders. And Elliott lost a training camp competition against Randy Bullock after being picked in 2017 by … the Bengals.

Cincinnati has drafted four kickers since 2000, more than any other team in the NFL—and no one before McPherson panned out. The Bengals picked Neil Rackers in 2000; he spent three disappointing seasons with the team before emerging as one of the league’s best kickers with the Cardinals, setting a record for most made field goals with a remarkable 40-of-42 showing in 2005. The Bengals picked Travis Dorsch in 2002; he never beat out Rackers for the job. Cincinnati thought Elliott could replace Bullock in 2017, but then stuck with Bullock until 2020, when he struggled with bouts of inconsistency. (Bullock notably missed a game-tying field goal attempt against the Chargers and grabbed his right calf in apparent pain—only to say after the game that his left calf had bothered him.) The team replaced Bullock by signing Austin Seibert in free agency. Seibert is another case study in drafted kickers not panning out—before joining the Bengals, he had been selected by the Browns in the fifth round barely a year earlier.

Although the Bengals had tried and failed to land the right kicker through the draft many times before, they decided to take another shot in May 2021. According to director of player personnel Duke Tobin, the team was fed up with “the grind cycle of manufacturing a kicker.” The Bengals decided that if they were able to fill certain positional needs in the first few rounds of the draft, they would target McPherson later.

Even that was a strange call. Most analysts believed that Miami’s Jose Borregales was the best kicker in last year’s draft. ESPN’s Todd McShay ranked Borregales as the top kicker in the class, as did and The Athletic. (Most draft analysts don’t even bother to rank kickers.) Borregales had just won the Lou Groza Award, presented to the top kicker in college football, and was named a unanimous All-American. He made every extra point he attempted as a senior, and went 18-of-20 on field goals with one of his two misses getting blocked.

McPherson, meanwhile, missed five field goals in his final season at Florida, including the last three 50-yarders of his college career. He was not named an All-American, or even named to All-SEC. He did, however, make a cool viral video:

Borregales went undrafted and signed with the Buccaneers; he didn’t make it into a game this season. The Bengals were the only team in the entire 2021 draft to defy logic and take a kicker—and they didn’t even appear to take the best one. What were they thinking?

But logic is overrated. McPherson may have been one of the best picks of the draft. His leg is unbelievable. And his clutch kicking ability—which is backed up by statistics!—makes him hugely valuable.

McPherson is an avatar for the Bengals’ stunning Super Bowl run. They probably shouldn’t have drafted him—and they might win a Super Bowl in part because they did.