kickers, NFL

Are NFL kickers undervalued?

First, this was one of the more difficult posts to write. Mostly due to the fact that I couldn’t use my computer to do research. I was limited to my phone and paper… which provides unique challenges. Moral of the story, keep your laptop out of reach of children. They will step on it.

I was on a text thread about how to properly build an NFL team; if you were a GM, what would you do. Surprisingly, kickers came up.

“how much weight would you give to your kicker in terms of draft and salary? honestly another head scratcher for me is why kickers are second class citizens when the way the game is won is by scoring points, and they score more points than any other player. why is the player who scores the most points not the most important? why is that player the least important? i don’t understand football”

It’s a great question and I love writing about the kicking game. Predominately because the data is easy to obtain (messy, hard to get data makes it so much more difficult to enjoy writing). Kickers are humans too, guys. So, let’s do this #ForTheBrand.

Current Value

To see if kickers (strictly place kickers – and that should be obvious, because the other kicker is called a Punter) are undervalued, I first wanted to see how they are valued now. What is the current market for a kicker? You can look at (1) how many players were drafted and round in which they were drafted, (2) as well as their salary and percentage of the total team salary cap. Finally, (3) how long you can expect them to be on your team. 

  1. On average, 1.89 kickers have been drafted per year since 2001. They are usually taken around the 4th round. Of the 33 kickers currently in the league, on 12 were drafted (36%). So, unlike a top quarterback, you don’t need to trade up to get a solid kicker… in fact, you are more likely find one outside of the draft.
  2. Generally, kickers are signed to 2-4 year deals. Some quick salary figures – Crosby (Packers) has the highest base salary at $3.2mm and has a four year deal. The highest contract value is Butker (Chiefs) at $20.2mm with a five year deal. And finally, the highest average salary is Tucker (Ravens) at $5.0mm with a four year deal.
    • The percentage of cap varied from 0.13% to over 2%, with an average of almost 1%
      • For comparative purposes, a fullback averages 0.5% (thanks to the 49ers at over 2%), running back takes up almost 3%, and a guard takes up about 5%
      • A quarterback makes up almost 8%, but that ranges from over 15% to under 1%
    • Of note, the Pats have ~2% of cap space allocated to a kicker from 2015 to 2018 season – which I would say is a franchise that understands the value of a kicker.
    • See charts below
  3. A franchise can expect a kicker to last almost five years, while the league average is just over three years. However, the kickers in the league currently have been playing for about 6 years.
2019 Kickers Cap Allocation by Team
Top five kickers in terms of Cap Space – 2019

Scoring the football – a commodity

Undrafted Kicker nailing an indoor kick… It’s not even that weird…

Fivethirtyeight and Eldo have both done articles on kicking and scoring. I won’t attempt to re-create already fully baked a really good insight. Here is what I got from them:

  • Kicking the ball has improved dramatically over the years and is almost a perfect model. Meaning, they continue to get better and better consistently over time. Kickers now have a +60% chance to make a +50 yard field goal. This wasn’t true in 2000 where it was 50% or 1990 <40%.
  • They have become so good (with rule changes, technology, etc) that if you’re within 55 yards and 4th down, you should probably kick the field goal for points (excluding other factors – like being down >10 pts & FG doesn’t help)
  • Kicking field goals in games have become the norm. It’s accounts for 21% of all scoring. This is due to the fact that its become, well, reliable, consistent, and easily obtainable.
  • Technology, technique, and time has led to this significant improvement.
  • Finding a quarterback, like Brady, Mahomes, Watson, or Brees (name the a top QB of your choice) is really, really hard. Finding a kicker that can put it through the uprights… well, it is just easier. A kicker doesn’t need to worry about coverages or audibles. Playing Captain Obvious here, but kickers have just one job. As they can focus on just one specific, technical job, they will get better.

So what?

Some teams under pay for the position, but that’s likely a function that they are trying to build a good enough team to move the ball and score. A team shouldn’t allocate more than 3% of their cap on a kicker, because their skill set is becoming more or common practice. It isn’t unique. You can replace them. You don’t have to draft them higher than round four. A commodity. Right now, it is a buyers market.

A kicker isn’t going to provide a new wrinkle to the offense. A coach isn’t going to trot out a kicker late in the 3rd quarter to attempt a 60+ yard field goal. The reward outweighs the risk of giving up field position.

As stated early, they provide just one function and utility; scoring. A team doesn’t expect a kicker to even make a tackle. Great is they do, but just stay healthy. Excluding a punter, every other position is required to do more than one job. Even the long snapper has to go down the field and make a tackle. And before you start showing me highlight clips of “specialists” making big hits, just watch Sebastian Paweł Janikowski in kick coverage. The hits are cool, but a kicker is much more valuable healthy. Also, if a specialist is making a tackle, then the coverage team screwed up.

A GM should pay at or slightly above market value for a kicker – right now that would be around $4mm and 2% of cap space. But a team isn’t suddenly changing trajectory because a great kicker is signed. It takes a balanced team to win games. All three phases to win. Which may be a cliche thing to say, but it is true. Championship teams are good at all phases of the game. That is the general rule – there are always exceptions – but the Patriots were really good. Did Adam the Goat Vinatieri win them some huge games. DEFINITELY. They need to be hitting PATs over and over to win games consistently.

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