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NFL free agency: 3 kicker options for the Browns in case Dustin Hopkins is out

A dependable leg is a necessity

Los Angeles Rams v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

In the Cleveland Browns’ 36-22 beatdown of the Houston Texans, the Browns scored on their first and fourth possessions to build a 14-0 lead. On the ensuing kickoff which kicker Dustin Hopkins laid on the two-yard line, KR Dameon Pierce took it up the middle, turned slightly right, and then turned the afterburners on en route to a 98-yard touchdown to close the gap to 14-7.

The jog right was because kicker Dustin Hopkins had squared up for the tackle. But Pierce had great speed and it was a foot race. As Hopkins, a former high school cornerback with tackling skills, was about to leap for the tackle, he was seen collapsing on the sideline instead. In his flat-out sprint, he pulled a hamstring with 12:08 left to go in the second quarter.

And yes, this was a result of Hopkins going from a stationary position to sprinting as fast as he was able to.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Houston Texans
Texans RB Dameon Pierce (31) runs past Cleveland K Dustin Hopkins (7) to score a touchdown on a kickoff return during the second quarter
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

A hamstring strain generally occurs as a result of muscle overload, such as when you are running and your leg is fully stretched out just before your foot strikes the ground. When your foot strikes the ground and all your weight is on it, the muscles can get stretched too far and they may start to tear.

The result was that Cleveland was without a kicker for the remainder of the contest. Hopkins was ruled out despite attempting to kick on the sidelines. If you have ever pulled a hamstring, you have a problem walking much less doing anything strenuous.

Every ice hockey team has a backup goal tender plus a third guy who played some in high school. Seems the Browns did not have a replacement for Hopkins in the event something did indeed happen. Even the punter Corey Bojorquez in college at New Mexico had zero attempts in field goals, PATs, and kickoffs.

Usually, there is somebody who played soccer while in high school who could kick short distances. Apparently not. This forced Cleveland to go for two-point conversions after each touchdown, but worse, several drives stalled within the Texans’ 30-yard line which would then become an automatic field goal unit play. Instead, the Browns had to go for every fourth down.

After the injury, Hopkins was seen in the medical tent twice but never was escorted back to the locker room. By halftime, he was ruled out.

Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski told CBS sideline reporter Evan Washburn that the Browns did not have a backup field goal kicker on the roster.

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Hopkins was having a banner year and is the leading AFC kicker for the Pro Bowl voting process. He came into the Houston contest as one of the best kickers in the league with 33 of 36 field goal attempts made including going 8-8 on field goals of 50+.

On Monday, Hopkins is scheduled for an MRI to determine the severity of the hammy.

If Hopkins is not able to play next week or is out for an extended period, Cleveland will need an abled-bodied kicker on the roster. And now.

When kickers are needed, traditionally they are called on Sundays and flown into the team facilities on Monday for a tryout.

If the injury to Hopkins is not severe, then Cleveland has dodged a bullet. But even if Hopkins is cleared to play, the Browns need to at least sign a kicker to their practice squad. And with a hamstring issue, they could possibly carry two kickers if there is any possibility for his hammy to re-surface.

Think about the gameday situation against the Texans in a playoff situation. No kicker, having to go for two every touchdown, no chance of building points with field goals, and not able to boom the ball out of the end zone for zero runbacks.

What would happen? One-and-done is the answer.

And it’s not like there is a lot out there. Veteran Mason Crosby was released and then inked to the New York Football Giants practice squad on December 22 after Randy Bullock and Cade York were added to IR. Then Crosby was elevated.

Cleveland needs to sign another kicker. Here are three to consider:


Matt McCrane

Age: 29

McCrane was on the Browns practice squad during the COVID years of 2020 and 2021 and was almost the replacement when starting kicker Cody Parkey was believed to not be able to come off of COVID protocol, but did so on gameday.

He has been active with kicking and between workouts owns Fuzzy’s Taco Shop in Texas. This past year he was the kicker for the DC Defenders of the XFL and then was in Baltimore Ravens training camp this past summer.

Recently, the New England Patriots brought in four kickers to work out because they weren’t happy with rookie Chad Ryland. McCrane made 16 of 19 field goal attempts and was 4-4 on kicks of 50+. He was the only kicker head coach Bill Belichick kept overnight. Then the Atlanta Falcons cut PS kicker Mathew Wright to which the Pats then inked him to their PS. In the end, Wright was released, McCrane was sent home, Ryland remained New England’s kicker and played against the Denver Broncos on Christmas Eve as he went 2-3 on PATs, and 2-3 on field goals including making a 56-yarder to win the game.

The strong-legged McCrane has played in live NFL games including kicking the game-winner with 1:47 remaining against the Browns when he was a roster member of the Oakland Raiders. Amari Cooper was his teammate. He was also a roster member of the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers.


Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

Zane Gonzalez

Age: 28

Gonzalez was drafted by the Browns in the seventh round of the 2017 NFL draft. In college, he was the All-Time leading scorer. He was cut after the second game of his sophomore campaign and then started or landed on the practice squad for Arizona, Detroit, Carolina, and San Francisco.

In the spring of this year, the Panthers traded Gonzalez to San Fran but was placed on IR after the final cutdown. He was released from IR with an injury settlement on September 5. He missed the entire 2022 season due to a calf injury.

In his final year with Carolina, Gonzalez went 20-22 on field goal attempts, 22-23 on PATs, and had a 63.6% touchback percentage on kickoffs.


Los Angeles Rams v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Brett Maher

Age: 34

Maher was with the Los Angeles Rams this year and signed to their practice squad after the final cutdown. He was elevated to the main roster against the Seattle Seahawks where he kicked three of five field goal attempts. The next day, he reverted to the PS. He was promoted again but was released on October 24 after he missed two field goals and one PAT in a 24-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Maher’s career stats are 111 field goals made on 139 attempts over five seasons, with 140 of 147 PATs converted. He is 22 of 34 from 50+, 25-36 from 40-49 yards, 29-34 from 30-39 yards, and 35-35 from 20-29 yards. He played for the Dallas Cowboys from 2018 to 2022.


Editor’s note: The Browns signed free agent kicker Riley Patterson to the practice squad on Christmas Day.

Patterson (6-0, 195) is in his third NFL season out of Memphis. Originally signed by the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2021, Patterson has appeared in 37 career games with the Lions (2021 and 2023) and Jaguars (2022). He has made 58 of 66 field goal attempts and 87 of 90 PATs. This season, he appeared in 13 games with the Lions and converted 15 of 17 field goal attempts.

Following his announced release from Jacksonville on May 25, 2023, Patterson was traded to the Detroit Lions in exchange for an undisclosed draft pick.

The Lions recently decided to change to kicker Michael Badgley and released Patterson. He was released on December 19.

Cleveland has not given an update on Hopkins injury status, as of yet. The Browns will practice on Tuesday in Berea and there will be an injury report.