Rodrigo Blankenship had big shoes to fill last season.
As the Indianapolis Colts’ first full-time replacement for future Hall of Fame kicker Adam Vinatieri, the rookie from Georgia connected on 86.5% of his field goal attempts and 95.6% of his extra points.
There were some concerns about Blankenship’s range. He connected on one 53-yard field goal but was just 1-of-3 from beyond 50 yards and 10-of-14 outside of 40 yards. His most high-profile miss came in the AFC Wild Card game against the Buffalo Bills when he hit an upright on a 35-yard attempt in the third quarter of a contest Indianapolis lost 27-24.
But his overall percentages compared favorably to his famous predecessor. Vinatieri bettered Blankenship’s field goal percentage during just six of his 14 seasons in Indianapolis – and in none since 2016. The rookie’s extra point percentage also topped each of Vinatieri’s marks since 2016.
So, while there’s clearly room for improvement, Blankenship is off to a solid start.
That doesn’t mean he won’t be pushed again this summer. After winning a competition against Chase McLaughlin during last year’s training camp, the 24-year-old must fend off a challenge from former Chicago Bears kicker Eddy Pineiro.
“It’s open competition, but Hot Rod – he’s the incumbent,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said. “Everything has to be earned. Hot Rod had a good season for us last year, so that’s obviously taken into consideration. He’ll have to earn it again this year, but it is open competition.”
The 25-year-old Pinerio connected on 82.1% of his field goal tries and 93.1% of his extra points for the Bears during his lone NFL season in 2019. He made both of his attempts beyond 50 yards but was just 5-of-9 outside the 40-yard line overall.
His longest make matched Blankenship at 53 yards.
The kicking competition should highlight the special teams portion of the preseason. Punter Rigoberto Sanchez and long snapper Luke Rhodes have no training camp challengers. Sanchez is coming off a season during which he averaged a career-high 46.2 yards on 42 punts while beating cancer.
The return jobs could be interesting.
Nyheim Hines is a heavy favorite to again return punts. He averaged exactly 10 yards per return during his first full season on the job and led the league with 30 returns. Hines has proven he has game-breaking potential in the role. He scored a pair of touchdowns in 2019 and had several long returns erased by penalties last year.
The kickoff return job is more wide open. Hines also has performed that role, but cornerback Isaiah Rodgers and wide receivers Parris Campbell and DeMichael Harris also could be among the candidates this year. For Harris, it could be the most efficient gateway to a spot on the active roster.