Denver Broncos fans saw the final piece of the team's roster fall into place with the signing of kicker Matt Prater to a new four-year deal this week. Prater had been holding out while waiting for a new long-term contract to be negotiated but no one in Denver actually thought that the deal wouldn't get done. Prater is a key part of the upcoming 2012 season. I expect Prater to have his best season yet with Peyton Manning running the Broncos offense. Anything less than a Pro Bowl appearance would be a disappointment.
For those not familiar with Prater, looking at his stats in 2011 would be confusing. Prater was tied for 28th in field goals made (19) while kicking in one of the least productive offenses in the NFL. Behind Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow at quarterback during the season, the Broncos finished 25th in points per game with 19.3.
However, fans who watched all of Denver's games in 2011 know how important that Prater was to the team winning the AFC West and making the playoffs. While Tim Tebow got the vast majority of the credit, it was Prater's kicking heroics that allowed Tebow to turn into the supposed hero and media sensation for the Broncos. He kicked three game-winning field goals in overtime and another one as time was expiring. In the miraculous comeback against the Chicago Bears, it was Prater who tied the game with a 59-yard kick with three seconds remaining in regulation and then followed it up with a 51-yard kick in overtime to win it. Kicking in the clutch is actually Prater's expertise. He's made 28 of 29 field goals attempted in the fourth quarter or overtime in his four-year career.
Now that Peyton Manning is running the Broncos offense, expect Prater's numbers to soar to a career best. Manning's offenses are typically high-scoring (they've been a top-ten offense for 11 of the 13 years that Manning was in Indianapolis) but at times the kicker hasn't been overly involved. That's usually because Manning always finds a way to convert touchdowns instead of settling for field goals. Playing in Denver will change that. Coach John Fox will not hesitate to allow Prater to take kicks from 50 yards out and further because Prater actually has the highest career field goal percentage from that distance in NFL history right now. With a weapon like that, the Broncos can and should utilize him frequently.
With the combination of Peyton Manning, Coach Fox's tendency to take points where he can, and Prater's outstanding leg, I expect Prater to have a monster year. I still expect that the Broncos will need him to win a few games this year, but I doubt they'll need as many game-winning 59-yard kicks to do it. However, if they do, there's nobody in the NFL I'd trust more than Prater to take those kicks.
Julie is a fanatical football fan who began rooting for the Broncos when she moved to Denver in 2001. She's also a featured NFL contributor for the Yahoo Contributor Network.