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Spending on NFL Kickers Usually Isn’t Worth It

Wild Card Round - Seattle Seahawks v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

There are some positions in the NFL where players are set up to look bad. Cornerback is one of those positions. A cornerback can blanket a receiver in coverage all game. You probably won’t notice it, though. The coverage might be so good that it prevents the ball from ever being thrown to the wide receiver. You’ll only notice the corner when he is beaten for a big play against him.

There are also positions where players are set up to look good. Kicker is among them. A bad kicker might make 70% of his field goal attempts in a season. Think about it. A guy who is bad at his job succeeds seven out of ten times. If that kicker adds in a few timely field goals late in the fourth quarter of games, you are likely to have a very good impression of somebody who doesn’t do his job very effectively.

Inevitably the offseason comes, and fans want the kicker retained even if it costs a few million dollars extra. Isn’t a little bit of money worth the peace of mind knowing you have a reliable kicker?

It isn’t money well spent, however. Spending extra on a kicker doesn’t generate appreciably better results.

Using data from Over the Cap and the Pro Football Reference Play Index I took a look at the performance of the ten kickers with the highest cap numbers in each of the last three seasons.

In 2017 the ten highest paid kickers made 87.2% of their field goal attempts. The league average was 84.3%

In 2018 the ten highest paid kickers made 83.8% of their field goal attempts. The league average was 84.7%.

In 2019 the ten highest paid kickers made 84% of their field goal attempts. The league average was 81.6%.

I don’t think you can say the teams that spend more for kickers are getting their money’s worth. The biggest disparity in the last three seasons was around 3%. If a kicker attempts 30 field goals in a year, the difference between the top paid kickers would be one additional made field goal over the course of an entire season.

Of course you might argue, “That one kick might come in the fourth quarter of Week 17 with a Playoff spot on the line. It might make or break the entire season.”

It’s possible, but it probably won’t. You also have to consider the extra money that would go with having a cheaper kicker could be spent on a role player who could see the field for twice as many snaps over the course of the season. It could also allow a team to upgrade from an average to a good free agent at a key position like wide receiver or cornerback. These moves would likely have more impact than that single field goal.

Many teams in the NFL clearly haven’t figured out how to value kickers. Part of this is likely due to how inconsistent the performance is from year to year at the position. Last year’s performance doesn’t offer much of an indication about how well a kicker will do this year.

For this article I also took a look at the season stats of kickers from the last three years. To qualify the kicker had to have 15 attempts in that season and 15 attempts in the season before. I grouped them based on the previous year’s performance and accumulated the stats.

As you can see, the numbers are almost identical. The odds of a kicker having a good season or a bad season seem to have nothing to do with his performance the year before.

Back to a point from earlier in the article. You might think that it’s worth paying extra money for a reliable kicker. I might agree with you, but the only kicker in the league who is reliable from year to year might be this guy.

Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Justin Tucker has made 90.8% of his field goal attempts over the last eight years. If you want to pay for reliability, you pay for him. Unfortunately he isn’t available.

Aside from Tucker almost every other kicker in the league could viably have either a good season or a bad season, and it is almost impossible to predict. You could argue there might be another few kickers who could join Tucker as exceptions, but for the most part kicker performance is a guessing game in this league. The odds are roughly equal no matter whom you sign and no matter their performance last year. It’s just a question of whether you want to pay a lot or a little for the same odds.

Of course this isn’t to say anybody could be a good kicker in the NFL. You couldn’t pull me out of the stands and expect me to be a competent kicker. There is a certain talent threshold a player has to hit. But once that threshold is hit, the difference in expected performance seems to be small.

Why do teams continue to spend extra for kickers then? I would argue the Jets lived it last year. The Jets let Jason Myers leave in free agency off a Pro Bowl year. They didn’t find a viable replacement, and it cost them in their regular season opener as Kaare Vedvik missed an extra point and a field goal in a one point loss. The headlines write themselves. The Jets were too cheap to pay for a Pro Bowl kicker, and it cost them.

Is that really what happened, though? It pretty much ignored how the Jets got Myers to begin with. The team had let Chandler Catanzaro leave in free agency the year before off a solid season sign a lucrative deal with Tampa Bay. The Jets then signed Myers on the cheap off a year in Jacksonville where he only made 73.3% of his field goal attempts. He had a career year with the Jets in 2018. After his big year he signed a large contract in Seattle and regressed.

The mistake wasn’t in letting Myers go. It was in failing to find an adequate replacement. Vedvik did not meet that talent threshold for a competent NFL kicker. There was clear warning signs as he had shown significant accuracy issues at every level he played. The Jets weren’t the only team fooled. The Vikings actually traded a fifth round pick for him last year during the preseason only to waive him.

That situation was one of Joe Douglas’ biggest failures to date. There really is no excuse for an NFL team to lack a competent kicker. It is one of the few positions where supply is greater than demand. Most teams only need a single kicker. A few teams might need to sign an extra one during the season due to injury. The odd team might split field goal and kickoff duties between two players. But there are more competent kickers than there are kicking jobs in the NFL.

If you don’t believe me ask the Atlanta Falcons and Younghoe Koo. Koo was a free agent as late as October last year when he signed with Atlanta. He made 88.5% of his field goals the rest of the way.

Stories like that happen every year. There are always free agent kickers signed in season who do their job effectively. It is a failure for any general manager to lack a competent kicker at any time.

While this competence should be easy to find, teams still clearly haven’t figured out how to train competent kickers to be consistent. You saw above how a year after making more than 90% of their field goal tries, kickers are connecting with the same accuracy of those who failed to eclipse the 80% mark the year before.

I wonder in the years ahead as player tracking technology becomes more common whether smart teams will start studying kicking technique with greater precision and figure out ways to drill more consistent form into their kickers. Leveraging technology into developing more accurate, more consistent kickers might be a way for teams to gain a small edge over the competition.

That could be a worthy investment. For today paying kickers a lot of money is not.