Kicker Chad Ryland was one of the top attractions when Maryland held its NFL pro day March 29 inside the Jones-Hill House indoor practice facility.
Ryland had a “very good day,” according to one coach in attendance, showing off a big, accurate leg and nailing most of his kicks. He packed up after his workout, content that his stellar college career and standout performances at the Senior Bowl, NFL Combine, and pro day had cemented his status as a top NFL draft prospect.
But Patriots assistant coach Joe Judge wanted to see more — a lot more.
“Judge wanted to go outside and kick — ‘I saw you indoor, and I want to bring you outdoor’ — so then all the other guys followed at that point as well,” said James Thomas, Maryland’s special teams coordinator.
Ryland “kind of kicked more than he wanted to,” added Thomas, “but I think that was part of the madness of Judge, see how he handles that.”
Judge and the Patriots clearly were impressed. They drafted Ryland with the 112th pick in the fourth round, and even traded up to do so, giving up an extra sixth-round pick to the Jets. This year’s draft had two top kicking prospects, and with the 49ers taking Michigan’s Jake Moody with the 99th pick, the Patriots made sure they got Ryland, with the Cowboys and Packers lurking with a kicker need.
“Certainly was an opportunity that we didn’t want to pass up on,” said Matt Groh, Patriots director of player personnel.
Just because the Patriots drafted Ryland doesn’t mean the position is settled for the next decade. They also drafted Justin Rohrwasser in the fifth round in 2020, and he was released before attempting an NFL kick. The Patriots still have Nick Folk under contract for 2023 as an insurance policy, and flexibility with the practice squad could allow them to keep both Folk and Ryland.
But a team that probably won’t have the most explosive offense in 2023 needs a big-time field goal kicker, and Folk, 38, may not have much left. He missed four kicks in the 40-49-yard range last year, plus three extra points, and doesn’t have a big enough leg for kickoffs.
Last year, the Patriots had the third-lowest touchback percentage on kickoffs (36.5 percent), the sixth-worst kickoff-return average, and allowed three touchdowns with punter Jake Bailey, now released, doing most of the kickoffs.
Enter Ryland, 23, who checks a lot of boxes for kicking in New England. He has spent his entire career kicking in inclement weather — growing up in Lebanon, Pa., then for four years at Eastern Michigan, and for one year at Maryland in the Big Ten. In his second college game as a true freshman, Ryland kicked a field goal in driving rain to beat Purdue.
“I like the cold. I like the wind,” Ryland said. “Like, I don’t shy away from it. It certainly has helped me develop into the kicker I am today.”
Ryland has a big, accurate leg. He connected on 82-86 percent of his field goal attempts in his last three seasons, and hit at least one 50-yarder in all five of his college seasons. In 2021 at EMU, Ryland hit on 17 consecutive kicks. In 2022 at Maryland, he hit 19 of 23 for the season, with three from 50-plus yards, including kicks of 53 and 52 yards against Michigan at The Big House.
“He outkicked Moody,” Thomas said. “We were about to go for it [on fourth down], and Michigan called a timeout, and [coach Mike Locksley] said, ‘Well, this is why we brought the kid in here.’ He looked at Chad, ‘You good?’ And Chad said, ‘[expletive] yeah,’ went out there and, boom, nailed a 53-yard kick.
“He was money, man. He was automatic.”
Ryland did kickoffs in each of his last four seasons. In 2021 at EMU, he kicked a touchback on 54 percent (39 of 72) and in 2022 at Maryland it was 69 percent (47 of 68). Ryland also made clutch kicks — three game-winners in his career, including two for EMU over Big Ten opponents.
“Even if he didn’t make every single kick, you just knew that you had a mature, serious, unflappable stud back there kicking field goals,” EMU coach Chris Creighton said. “That’s maybe the most impressive thing about him, is his process. He just really believes deeply in his ability and how he goes about it.
“If he missed a couple or whatever, it would not have been any kind of hesitation from me, even if things weren’t perfect that day.”
Ryland was a soccer and baseball player in high school and didn’t start kicking until his junior year, but he took to it quickly and gained confidence thanks to his performance at the renowned Kohl’s Kicking Camps. He chose a preferred walk-on spot at Eastern Michigan and won the team’s kicking job in 2018 training camp as a true freshman.
“He came in, and the dude just had it going on,” said Jay Nunez, EMU’s former special teams coordinator who is now with Oklahoma. “He could not miss, and just had some moxie about him.
“We did a lot of team-building stuff, and as a true freshman, he gets in front of the whole team and does this corny magic trick, but just carried himself and owned it. Stuff that you can’t coach.”
Ryland thrived for four years at EMU, ranking as the school’s all-time leader in points (309) and second with 56 field goals. Nunez said Ryland regularly made 60-yard field goals in practice with a snap and hold, and that he had the athleticism to run a few trick plays.
“The thing that stood out with him was just the maturity,” Nunez said. “Never was shaken. I can’t even think back and remember seeing the kid really rattled, like that look in his eyes that he was drowning. He was never any of that. Just very process-oriented, confident, sure of himself in his ability.”
Ryland considered turning pro after 2021 but, with an extra year of NCAA eligibility because of COVID, he wanted to prove himself on a bigger stage. He entered the transfer portal and found a good fit at Maryland, which provided Big Ten competition and needed a veteran kicker to mentor a young special teams room.
Thomas, a first-time special teams coordinator in 2022, was grateful that he found a “ready-made” kicker and “a total pro.” Ryland was named second-team All-Big Ten after the season and earned invites to the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine.
“He was really good for our room,” Thomas said. “He made us better this year. We had a young snapper, he had hiccups early, but Chad was able to manage it. Our punter was all-conference, too, and his game improved tremendously because of the approach that Chad had.
“Without Chad, we wouldn’t have made the jump as a team that we made. The Patriots are getting one now, man. He’ll be hard to replace.”
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.