San Diego Charger Diagnosis: Nate Kaeding

With the season almost a third complete, the San Diego Chargers are not only in far better position than last season, but have exceeded almost every guru and fan's expectations. It comes to no surprise then the Chargers have significantly improved in almost every facet of the game, especially special teams. The controversial draft trade of the 2004 is already starting to pay off, but not in a way many pundits predicted.

Nate Kaeding, their first overall pick of the third round, has initially transcended his success from the University of Iowa to the NFL.

Despite Kaeding being an all world kicker, many questioned San Diego about selecting him as high as the third round with so many needs yet to be addressed. Because kickers are a "role of the dice" due to the many differences between the NFL and college levels, the rule of thumb is waiting until the second day before selecting one. Despite a couple exceptions, most kickers are not selected until the later rounds, and consequently, there is no sense of urgency in addressing the problem on day one. Also, since the other kind of "football" dominates the Latin and European markets, many general managers have begun searching abroad for their special team answers. To say the least, choosing a kicker in the first 100 selections is a risky proposition with so many other avenues to explore.

But it was clear that San Diego was enamored with Kaeding from the outset and word had trickled out of the closed door meetings they were impressed with his abilities which could potentially warrant a high pick.

And Kaeding has shown a great ability to quickly adapt to the NFL game. Most Charger fans have probably blocked from their minds Kaeding's horrific first game (preseason) in Charger blue. But when analyzing the mistakes he made on that day and what he is doing now only exemplifies his unique ability to quickly incorporate the disciplines needed to be an effective kicker. It is clear Kaeding has been able to adjust to the new dimensions of the ball while kicking field goals, and is currently only one of five every day kickers who have been perfect thus far.

Kaeding has shown excellent range with his field goals as well. He is currently four out of four from within the thirty and three of three beyond (with a fifty-one yarder to add to his resume). Not too bad considering Kaeding first attempt during the preseason was wide left from only twenty-five yards out. One area, however, Kaeding had problems with during the preseason that has continued into the regular season is the length of his kickoffs. Although he has improved his numbers recently, he has yet to make big strides in putting the ball in the end zone, and even in "Mile High" was not able to use the thin air much to his advantage (on kickoffs).

Coming out of Iowa, Kaeding was known for his big leg. He consistently kicked the ball through the back of the end zone, not to mention breaking school records for lengthy field goals. But for the Chargers this season, Kaeding has only had one touch back in twenty-eight kickoff attempts. On average, Kaeding has only been kicking the ball to around the six yard line, and opposing return men have been consistently returning the kickoffs for just under twenty-two yards.

Considering the youth and inexperience of the Chargers' defensive squad it is vital for Kaeding to get deeper penetration on his kickoffs. In close games it is very disheartening for a team to give up excellent field position after scoring either a big field goal or a touchdown. This happened numerous times while facing both the Denver Broncos and New York Jets. Since the Chargers were playing "catch up" in both games the opposing team's field position proved to be costly in each contest. The key to great kickoffs exceeds just kicking the ball deep. Consequently, the kicker must be able to obtain enough hang time to allow his coverage team to field the play. Some kickers do kick the ball short, but it is generally high enough to give the special teams plenty of time to get down the field. But since Kaeding is still allowing twenty plus yards on each return it is clear he is not accomplishing either objective.

Despite this, Kaeding has done an excellent job keeping his team in the game when called upon. This was evident even in a lost to Denver when Kaeding drilled the fifty-one yarder keeping San Diego in the game. In addition, Kaeding proved to be extremely reliable against Houston converting needed field goals in what ended up being a see-saw battle between two hard-nosed teams. Also, because of Kaeding's accuracy the Chargers were able to maintain significant leads against Jacksonville and Tennessee, shutting them out of any realistic chance for a comeback.

Diagnosis for next week: The game in Atlanta is another tough challenge for the Chargers. With the high level of the play from the Falcons this season it would not be surprising to see this game come down to a field goal. Kaeding has been excellent this season, but he has yet to be put in a situation where the game is won or lost on his foot. This, of course, is inevitable. And whether he makes or misses it is not as important as sustaining his consistency. Kaeding has to look upon this season from a long terms perspective. Sure, the Chargers will take any type of victory they can get, but Kaeding needs to approach each game the way he has thus far. The next big challenge for him to overcome is seeing how he responds after a miss or two.

Diagnosis for the season: Kaeding needs to improve his kickoff numbers – plain and simple. This week Kaeding is facing a team that has less than a twenty yard average on kickoff returns. If the Falcons succeed at the levels the Chargers have been giving up, then Kaeding has to make some serious adjustments in the coming weeks. He has yet to face some of the more dynamic kick returners in the NFL, and when Kaeding travels to Kansas City (or vice versa), players like Dante Hall will be ringing their hands in excitement. So far turnovers have been more of an Achilles for San Diego than field position. But if any lessons were to be learned in Denver, field position can and will change the entire dynamic of a game and can often hurt just as much as a turnover.

Byran Martin can be reached at Byran@sandiegosports.net

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