TAMPA ― Every time Chase McLaughlin kicked in his NFL home stadium, he couldn’t help but feel like a visitor. His list of barnstorming career stops resembles a train schedule.
He’s been summoned when his team reaches the red zone in every time zone.
Place-kickers are used to performing under pressure. That’s why McLaughlin didn’t hesitate when asked to list, in correct order, the 11 NFL stops he has made over the past four-plus seasons since leaving Illinois in 2019 as an undrafted free agent.
“Undrafted, Buffalo,” McLaughlin began. “Practice squad, Minnesota. Week 3 or 4 2019, went to LA for four games (with the Rams). Four games at the Niners. Straight to the Colts for four games all the way through camp. Back to Minnesota for nine weeks and practice squad. I think it was five weeks in Jacksonville. Last three weeks of the season with the Jets through, like, April. Claimed by the Browns. Full season there, and then the Colts and then back here.
“Is that right?”
Like McLaughlin, very accurate.
The fact that he was available for the Bucs to sign as a free agent was surprising to begin with. At 27, McLaughlin made 83.3% of his field-goal attempts (30-of-36) last season for the Colts.
But Indianapolis unexpectedly decided to sign Rams place-kicker Matt Gay to a four-year, $22.5 million contract as a free agent, putting the well-traveled McLaughlln back on the market.
“Yeah, I was definitely surprised, but Matt is a friend of mine and he’s definitely a great kicker,” McLaughlin said. “Like I said, it’s just the business, that’s how it goes. So, it’s on to the next opportunity and just try to take advantage of what’s in front of me right now.”
Coincidentally, the Bucs drafted Gay in the fifth round out of Utah in 2019. But he lasted only one season after making only 27 of 35 field-goal attempts (77.1%) and going 43-for-48 on extra point attempts as a rookie.
That created an opening for veteran Ryan Succop, who put a much-needed end to the revolving door of Bucs place-kickers when he joined the team in 2020 and helped them to a Super Bowl 55 championship. Succop was the solid, if not spectacular, performer the Bucs needed at the time.
But following a remarkable debut with Tampa Bay in which he made 28 of 31 field-goal attempts (90.3%), Succop saw his field-goal percentage decline to 83.3 in 2021 and 81.6 last season.
The Bucs released Succop in March, in no small part because he can no longer kick long field goals. He was only 2-for-7 on field goals of 50 yards or more, with a long of 54.
Coach Todd Bowles expressed his desire to acquire a kicker with more range, and McLaughlin can hit the long ball.
“Very strong leg. He’s been accurate out here,” Bowles said of McLaughlin. “It’ll be interesting to see once the wind starts blowing, because he’s been in a dome. But he’s been very impressive so far.”
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At 6 feet, 180 pounds, McLaughlin generates rare power and accuracy. He’s 17-for-21 in career field-goal attempts of 50 yards or more, including a long of 57 yards last season.
“You don’t have to be the biggest guy to do it,” McLaughlin said. “I like to compare it to like a track runner. They’re not the biggest or strongest, but they’re the quickest or the fastest. They have that quick-twitch muscle. So, being able to time everything up and explode the right muscles in the right timing at the right moments is kind of the key.
“And the other thing, too, is having trust to hit it straight, and nine times of 10 it’s going to have the distance. Just trust in yourself. Don’t try to change the kick when you get back further. A lot of young guys try to hit it harder or what not. But if it’s going to be good from 45, it’s going to be good from 60, so just trust yourself.”
Like a lot of NFL place-kickers, McLaughlin grew up playing primarily soccer until he tried football for one season in the seventh grade. He thought he had left the sport behind when he entered Cypress Woods High School, near Houston.
“I played soccer for about 13 or 14 years,” McLaughlin said. “I was a big soccer guy. I tried football in the seventh grade. I’m from Texas, so I tried it and honestly I thought it wasn’t for me. I played soccer my freshman year of high school.
“Then in my sophomore year, it was the typical story where they go to the soccer team and say, ‘Hey, who wants to kick?’ I figured I tried it in seventh grade and I would try it again, and I ended up liking it. I played my first varsity game in front of 10,000 people. Texas high school football — it’s the real deal.”
McLaughlin kicked well enough to walk on at Illinois and earn a job under coach Lovie Smith. After 2-1/2 years, he earned a scholarship and went on to receive first team All-Big Ten honors in 2018.
McLaughlin also is no stranger to kicking in Raymond James Stadium. He kicked an extra point in the Illini’s 47-23 loss to USF in 2017.
McLaughlin met his wife, Jess, at Illinois, and she has remained in Indianapolis for now until the Bucs get closer to the start of the season. While the nomadic nature of kicking in the NFL can be stressful, McLaughlin said his family’s faith has enabled him to withstand so much change.
“The two big things are faith and family,” he said. “When I got married after my rookie season, we really just opened our faith deeply together. And we knew that God had a plan for us and then very quickly found out it’s not exactly what we have planned for ourselves, but it’s always what’s best for us.
“So we found a lot of peace in knowing that and just digging in (with) our faith. My wife has been great and supporting me through this whole journey. Anytime anyone congratulates me on an opportunity, I tell them to congratulate her, too, because she’s in it just as much as I am.”
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