ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — The Denver Broncos acquired kicker Wil Lutz from the New Orleans Saints in exchange for a seventh-round pick next year, reuniting the veteran kicker with coach Sean Payton.
The Lutz deal means New Orleans will go with undrafted rookie and Sedalia native Blake Grupe from Notre Dame. He was 5-for-6 in the preseason with his only miss from 60 yards, while Lutz was perfect in the preseason, nailing all four of his kicks.
NFL.com's Ian Rapaport was one of the first Tuesday morning to report the news of the Lutz-Payton reunion that cleared the way for the Smith-Cotton alum in New Orleans.
Following his game-winning field goal to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs in the Saints’ preseason opener, Grupe spoke to the Democrat about the competition with Lutz.
“He’s a guy that’s been here seven or eight years and had success,” Grupe said. “When you have a guy that’s done it a long time at a high level, there’s lots to pick up on and learn. I just sit back and watch, see how he operates. There’s a lot of big-name guys that have done a lot. You pick up on things and watch, and [Will’s] been great to me. We’re in a competition, so when it’s time to go, it’s time to go, but off the field it's been good so far.”
New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Luke Johnson tweeted he was informed by one source the Lutz trade wasn't made with salary considerations in mind, and that the Saints organization believed that Grupe won the job outright in training camp.
Moving Lutz and holding onto Grupe does provide some small cap relief for the Saints, though, as Grupe would make roughly $2.7 million over the next three years and Lutz, 29, had a 2023 cap hit of $1.7 million with a deal set to expire at the end of this year, according to Spotrac.
This was set to be the final season of a five-year, $20.3 million deal Lutz signed with the Saints, one which was restructured in 2021 to reduce his base salary by over $1.3 million and convert some of that salary into a signing bonus to provide cap relief.
Despite Johnson’s report the cap considerations, however, most analysts believed that Lutz would win the Saints’ job, and Grupe would quickly land elsewhere, with reports of the Tennessee Titans among those other teams who were interested in his services.
Saints coach Dennis Allen said the decision to trade Lutz was “real tough.”
“Wil Lutz has been a good kicker for us for a while now,” Allen said. “We felt like we had a chance to get value for a player and felt like we had another guy in the building that we had confidence in. So, those are always challenging situations.”
The 24-year-old Grupe had opportunities to play college soccer but elected to try football at Arkansas State, where he kicked for four seasons before using an additional year of eligibility to kick at Notre Dame in 2022. In the hours before the Saints’ preseason opener this month, when the 5-foot-7, 156-pound Grupe walked out on the Superdome field out of uniform, he was stopped by security personnel who didn’t realize he was a player.
He’ll be better recognized now.
“It’s been obviously a highly competitive camp, going against a guy like (Lutz) that’s done it for a while and done it at a high level,” Grupe said. ”I couldn’t have asked for a better competition or a better guy to do it against. ... He congratulated me. I congratulated him.”
The Broncos released veteran Brandon McManus in the spring and brought in veterans Elliott Fry and Brett Maher for a camp competition. Fry was waived with an injury designation after the preseason opener where he missed a field goal.
Maher, who was jettisoned by the Dallas Cowboys in the offseason following his extra point meltdown in the playoffs, missed two field goals in that first preseason game before bouncing back to make all four of his attempts and all seven extra points in the last two exhibitions.
"Brett Maher did an outstanding job," Broncos general manager George Paton said. "I feel he should be kicking in this league."
Payton had made it clear that Maher hadn't won the job when Fry was released two weeks ago and was actually competing with kickers across the league.
That included Lutz, 29, who signed with New Orleans after the Baltimore Ravens cut him in 2016.
Lutz has made 84.6% of his field goal attempts in his seven-year NFL career. He made 74.2% of his tries last year after missing 2021 with a core muscle injury.
Payton said he believes Lutz is back to his pre-injury self.
"He was a target for us. We knew they had two players," Payton said. "... He had a really good training camp for them. We've seen all of his kicks and we got pretty good information on how his practices went. And look, this is a place kickers want to be with the altitude and the conditions."
Later Tuesday, Lutz tweeted a thank you to New Orleans saying that "this city will always be a special place to us." But Denver Gazette reporter Chris Tomasson tweeted that Lutz's agent, when asked about Lutz losing the job to Grupe, said, "He didn't lose his job. The Saints just made a poor decision. The better player is not the one who is left on the Saints' roster, I'll tell you that."
The Broncos also traded veteran tight end Albert Okwuegbunam and a 2025 seventh-round selection to the Philadelphia Eagles for a '25 sixth-rounder.
Okwuegbunam is coming off a monster exhibition finale in which he caught seven passes for 109 yards and a touchdown against the Rams, after which his teammates serenaded him with chants of "Albert O! Albert O!"
"I've always been capable of doing this," he said afterward. "Tonight, I just got the opportunities to show it."
In 26 games over his first three NFL seasons, Okwuegbunam had 54 catches for 546 yards and four touchdowns.
Lutz, meanwhile, will see plenty of familiar faces in Denver besides Payton's.
The Broncos stocked their roster with several former Saints who played for Payton in New Orleans, including tight end Adam Trautman, fullback Michael Burton and wide receivers Marquez Callaway and Lil'Jordan Humphrey.
Arnie Stapleton is an AP pro football writer based out of Denver.