NAPA, Calif. — For the first time in more than a decade, the Raiders head into the final stages of training camp uncertain who their punter will be.
When seven-time Pro Bowl punter Shane Lechler bolted for Houston as a free agent in March, it created a huge void on Oakland’s roster. With less than three weeks remaining before the season opener in Indianapolis, the Raiders aren’t any closer to filling it.
Marquette King, whose booming kicks have made him a fan favorite at training camp, and quirky but consistent veteran Chris Kluwe have gone back and forth throughout the preseason with neither able to gain the upper hand.
The two alternated halves in Oakland’s first two preseason games and will likely share time again Friday when the Raiders host the Chicago Bears.
“We’ve got two guys that are NFL-caliber punters,” Oakland coach Dennis Allen said Tuesday. “Any time you’re in that situation, that’s a good problem to have.”
It’s a problem the franchise hasn’t had to deal with since 2000, when the Raiders drafted Lechler in the fifth round. Over the next 13 years, Lechler broke nearly every team punting record, and he’s still the NFL career leader with a 47.5-yard gross average.
Lechler signed with the Texans after not receiving an offer from the Raiders. General manager Reggie McKenzie, who has spent the last two years slashing millions from Oakland’s bloated payroll, figured it would be too costly to re-sign Lechler and let the veteran walk.
King, who spent all of 2012 on the Raiders injured reserve list, was the logical choice to replace Lechler, but Oakland signed Kluwe in May shortly after he was cut by the Vikings following an eight-year stint in Minnesota.
The two men have engaged in a friendly but spirited competition since camp began. They frequently talk and share tips. Mostly it’s been the 31-year-old Kluwe serving as a mentor to his younger teammate.
“You can’t look at it like I’m here in this spot competing for this job. You have to look at it like I’m competing for one of 32 jobs in the NFL,” Kluwe said. “Because you could beat out the guy at your spot on your team but if neither of you is punting better than a guy on some other team (who is let go), they’re going to cut both of you and bring in that other guy. That’s how I started in this league. Minnesota claimed me off waivers.”
Statistically, there hasn’t been much difference between the two punters.
Both punted four times in the first two preseason games. King, the more powerful of the two, has a 55.5-yard average with a 49.0-yard net. Kluwe, who holds every significant Vikings punting record, is averaging 46.0 yards with a 37.5 net.
“I’m not competing against anybody but myself,” said King, who went undrafted out of Division II Fort Valley State in 2012. “True enough, it’s a competition (with Kluwe), but I’m competing against myself and I’m pretty sure he’s competing against himself.”
King is the more outgoing of the two punters, smiling and laughing his way through practice and interviews.
He politely thanks reporters for their questions, and after one recent meeting with the media, the 24-year-old asked a Raiders public relations intern if his answers were good enough.
Kluwe is a bit more colorful.
A very outspoken supporter of gay rights, Kluwe wrote an open letter to Maryland delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. in 2012 after Burns had written to Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti urging him to keep his team from making comments in support of same sex marriages.
Kluwe’s letter went viral on the Internet and he became an instant celebrity on the talk show circuit. He made an appearance on the Conan O’Brien show in June to talk about the letters and his views on subjects such as politics and the art of swearing.
Early in camp, Kluwe wore Google Glass to give fans a player’s perspective of practice. He’s also a huge fan of the online game Warcraft and regularly tweets about playing it.
Like King, Kluwe downplayed talk of a rivalry between the two.
“For me it’s always been that I’m going to go out and do the best that I can,” Kluwe said. “That’s all I know how to do. And really, that’s what coaches and player personnel guys are looking for. They’re looking for somebody who isn’t counting bodies next to them, they’re going out to compete.”
NOTES: DT Pat Sims made it through his first full practice after missing nearly all of camp with an undisclosed injury. ... LB Kevin Burnett also returned to the field. ... WRs Brice Butler and Travonte Sessions were hurt in practice and did not finish. ... Allen said he expects to have second-round pick Menelik Watson back on the field Wednesday. Watson, the 42nd overall pick in the draft, has practiced just once this preseason because of a calf injury he sustained in July. ... The Raiders will hold their final practice of camp on Wednesday.