Throughout the sprawling complex that is Dolphins training camp, there is competition, ranging from veterans assured of a roster spot to free agents just hoping to stick on the roster.
But two players are in a unique situation. Their competition is winner-take-all. No wiggle room where if both do well, both could stick around. This is the world kickers Dan Carpenter and Caleb Sturgis share daily at Nova Southeastern University.
Although it could make for an awkward situation if they allow it, both men say their relationship has been cordial, professional, everything the book says it ought to be. Carpenter says once exhibitions begin, “I’m just going to cheer for him just like I would any other teammate.”
Yet both men know the score.
Carpenter is 27 years old, a five-year veteran who has been to a Pro Bowl but is coming off an uneven year and, perhaps most importantly, is scheduled to count $3 million against the salary cap. Sturgis is 23, coming off an outstanding season at Florida in which he was voted one of the nation’s top kickers and would count only $441,140 against the cap.
Oh, and then there’s that matter of the Dolphins spending a fifth-round draft choice for Sturgis. It’s the first time in 24 years Miami has used a draft choice on a kicker, and you’d have to go back 38 years, to Joe Danelo in 1975, to find a kicker drafted by the Dolphins who failed to make the roster.
Neither man, naturally, needs to be reminded of such parameters.
Sturgis: “Any time you put more pressure on yourself, it’s a bad thing, so I try not to think about any of that. My job is to go out there and put points on the scoreboard for the team. That’s what I focus on.”
Carpenter: “I’ve been here five years — five great years. Obviously you want to be the only guy in camp. That means that they have faith in what you can do and you’re in your job. But at the same time … your stay with an NFL team at any position is day to day.”
Carpenter received the first extended look when camp opened and was perfect on 10 field-goal attempts Sunday. Since they’re alternating days, Monday was Sturgis’ turn, but he had only four tries, converting three and missing from about 40 yards. Sturgis wasn’t concerned about the limited look, saying both kickers have been assured by coaches they’ll receive ample opportunity to win the job.
Carpenter knows what it’s like to be the challenger, having originally signed as a free agent in 2008. A year later, he was in the Pro Bowl. Of the five longest field goals in Dolphins history, he accounts for three, including the record 60-yarder in 2010. But he was 22-of-27 last season. Even though every miss came from 47 yards or more, Miami was convinced it was time to draft a kicker.
Enter Sturgis, who was 24-of-28 for the Gators, an 85.7 percent accuracy rate that was first among the NCAA’s top 25 kickers. His powerful leg once blasted a 72-yard, wind-aided field goal in practice.
Sturgis’ relatives are excited about the opportunity even if they needed time to get used to Caleb playing the American version of football rather what the rest of the world calls football. Sturgis said his parents started him and all five of his siblings in soccer. And although he had performed well on the soccer pitch, “I took a little bit different path.” While he did, brother Nathan began carving out his career as a member of the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer.
Carpenter has family ties to think about these days, too. His wife, Kaela, is pregnant with their first child, a boy. She’s due in mid-August. During the peak of training camp.
“We planned the child,” Carpenter said. “But we’re not so good with math, apparently.”
The pregnancy meant Dan and Kaela didn’t do the traveling they normally enjoy in the offseason. A lot of Dan’s traveling was to the Dolphins’ practice bubble, which is why Sunday didn’t feel like Day 1 to him. Carpenter knows there could come a time when extending his NFL career means uprooting his young family.
“You look around and five years in one place is a long time for an NFL player,” he said. “It doesn’t happen often. I’d love for it to be six or seven or 10, but obviously I know there’s reality and this is a business. And all I can do is come out and do my best every day and show them I can still kick a football.”