Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship getting a kick out of NFL draft

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Former Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship tells Channel 2 Action News' Alison Mastrangelo how the coronavirus pandemic has affected dealing with NFL teams ahead of the 2020 draft. (Courtesy of Channel 2 Action News)

Georgia's Rodrigo Blankenship is going to kick in the NFL. About that there is little doubt. Whether he gets drafted for that purpose will be determined on Saturday.

For his part, the Bulldogs’ most beloved player is not sweating it. For place-kickers, there is a bit of a love-hate relationship with the NFL draft. The reality is, not many of them get drafted, and when they do, they tend to go late in the process.

That's the prospect that followed Blankenship into this week's proceedings, which began with the first round on Thursday night. While teammates Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson were becoming millionaires on Thursday and D'Andre Swift and Jake Fromm were nervously waiting for their phones to ring, Blankenship calmly hung out at his Athens residence near the UGA campus with his girlfriend, Logan Harrell, and his dog the last two days.

Blankenship was waiting until Saturday, when the final four rounds of the draft will be conducted, to drive over to his parents’ home in Marietta. There he will find out where the next chapter in his life will take him.

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“Yes, I would like to get drafted,” Blankenship said this week. “There’s definitely some benefits to being drafted, but there’s some to being a free agent, too.”

Basically, it comes down to security versus early earning power. A draftee can expect to receive a four-year contract, plus a signing bonus. These days, everything is slotted, so there’s not much guesswork involved.

For example, if Blankenship were to be selected by the Bengals with the first pick of the fifth round, he can expect to sign a four-year contract worth about $2.9 million, including a $354,000 signing bonus, according to the NFL tracking site, Spotrac.com. The difference between that and the last pick of the fifth round is nominal ($2.8 million with a $237,000 signing bonus, per Spotrac).

But the majority of kickers in the NFL make rosters via free agency. There usually is little mystery about which teams are in need of their services. An undrafted free agent can identify those teams and try out. Of course, there is no guarantee who will win the job and very little financial security in the meantime.

Hence, Blankenship very much would like to hear his named called Saturday.

“Being drafted is being drafted,” the Bulldogs’ all-time leading scorer said. “It’s a reflection that a team is that much more interested in having you and is willing to make an investment in you. And, of course, there’s also more financial security.”

Blankenship appears to be in good shape. Though he is the reigning Lou Groza Award winner as college football’s top kicker in 2019, he’s not a slam dunk to be the first kicker off the board. By all accounts, he’s competing with Georgia Southern’s Tyler Bass for that distinction.

Georgia, of course, has a rich kicking tradition. The Bulldogs have had seven kickers drafted. The earliest any of them went was the fourth round, which was the case for Kevin Butler (Bears, 1985), John Kasay (Seahawks, ’91) and Allan Leavitt (Falcons, ’77). Both Butler and Kasay played for 12 seasons and Butler won a Super Bowl with the Bears.

The history of kickers in the draft is fascinating. Some of the best ones weren’t drafted. Some of the earliest draftees were busts. Interspersed in between is every scenario under the rainbow.

Florida State’s Sebastian Janikowski was selected by the Oakland with the 17th pick in 2000. He played 19 seasons and became the Raiders’ all-time leading scorer.

But contrary to popular belief, “Sea Bass” is not the earliest draft pick ever among place-kickers. Russell Erxleben went 11th overall to New Orleans in 1979. His NFL career lasted only six years and he has twice been convicted of securities fraud.

Princeton’s Charlie Gogolak gets credit for being the highest NFL draft pick ever for a place-kicker. He went sixth to Washington in 1966. Interestingly, he also was drafted by the AFL that year, lasting until the sixth round.

Georgia Tech’s Harris Butker is a good example of how many kickers make it in the league. The Westminster School graduate and Decatur native was drafted in the seventh round by the Carolina Panthers, only to get cut. But he made the Kansas Chiefs’ roster off the practice squad in 2017, signed a five-year contract extension worth $20.3 million last year and then earned a Super Bowl ring in February.

According to ESPN’s data, 47 kickers have been drafted since 1994, with at least one being selected in 22 of those 26 years. The last time no kicker was picked was 2015.

The studious Blankenship is acutely aware of all this.

“It’s few and far between,” Blankenship said of drafted kickers. “The last few years have been are a lot more reflective of what the landscape is like. Kickers primarily have been taken in the fifth to seventh rounds and I that’s pretty much what I’m expecting going into the weekend.”

One of the keys for Blankenship, however, is his earnings potential off the field. Well known throughout the South as “Hot Rod” and “Rec Specs” and beloved by UGA fans, he is a marketing firm's dream.

Blankenship jokes about being a year late to take advantage of the NCAA's Name, Image and Likeness era, which was to be defined by a national working group on Friday. But he already has multiple endorsement opportunities awaiting him.

Blankenship is being represented by the Octagon agency out of Connecticut. NBA star Stephen Curry is among its clientele.

And there is, of course, a specs deal on the horizon. To date, Blankenship has bought his famous protective eyewear from Liberty Sport of New Jersey. He won't be paying for those anymore.

“We’re working on some stuff,” Blankenship teased. “I’m just trying to navigate the draft right now.”

Blankenship did lose some money-making opportunities due to the coronavirus pandemic. He lost three scheduled autograph signings and a kicking camp. But he was able to get in one camp along with an autograph signing with quarterback Jake Fromm before the shutdown.

“Everybody’s had to give up something,” Blankenship said. “Assuming I can have a successful career, those opportunities will be there in the future.”

Judging from all the records and big moments Blankenship had at Georgia, it’s just a matter of time.

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