Whether crazy punters, dreamy kickers, or ridiculously athletic returners, Chuck Zodda takes you inside the world of special teams as only a kicker can. Today, the art of drafting kickers and the math behind the picks.
There have been only three instances in NFL history where a team selected a kicker in the first round of the NFL Draft. The most recent example came in 2000, when the Oakland Raiders nabbed Sebastian Janikowski with the 17th pick in the draft, despite a pending charge for attempting to bribe a police officer, which was dismissed shortly after the draft.
Unfortunately for the Raiders, Janikowski got off to a rough start on the field, making just 68.8% of his kicks during his rookie season, and leading a number of pundits to proclaim him one of the biggest wastes of a first-round pick in NFL history. Although his career accuracy now stands at 80.2%, Janikowski has never become an elite kicker in the NFL – thus raising the questions, how does a team go about finding elite kicking talent and at what round does it make sense to draft it?
Qualifying NFL kickers made 84.9% of their field goals in 2014. A number of other kickers saw part-time duty with mixed results, ranging from the 3-for-3 of Garrett Hartley to the 1-for-5 of Alex Henery, who miraculously only made a 51-yard attempt. But if we strip out the part-timers, the field becomes bunched, with the high-water mark of 96.8% for Adam Vinatieri leading the way, and Blair Walsh bringing up the rear at 74.3%. With 943 kicks by these 31 kickers, the average kicker attempted 30.4 field goals over the course of the season, making 25.8 of them.
If we assume the average kicker will attempt 30 kicks in a given season, the variation in number of makes ranges from 22.3 at Walsh’s success rate to 29.0 at Vinatieri’s. Realistically then, the difference between the best kicker in the league and worst kicker in the league in 2014 can be estimated at approximately 21 points.
However, outliers can be volatile over a small sample size, so it makes more sense to look at kickers in terms of groupings. When split into two groups and normalized as above, the top 16 kickers would have made 26.8 kicks out of 30, with the bottom 15 kickers making 24.1. The difference between above and below-average kickers is a mere nine points, or just over half a point per game.
But the data is a more complicated than it initially appears. The top 16 kickers by accuracy attempted 68 kicks from 50+ yards, connecting on 48 of them – a 70.5% success rate. The bottom 15 kickers attempted 80 kicks from the same range, making only 45 of them, good for 56.3% accuracy. When the kicks from 50+ yards are removed from the data, the difference between top-half kickers and bottom-half kickers is a mere 7% – 92.5% to 85.4%.
When modifying the annualized numbers for this data, the difference in points scored is reduced to just over 6 points per season – 27.8 field goals made for the top 16 kickers versus 25.6 made kicks for the bottom 15. Thus, the primary difference in the quality of kicker is not their accuracy within 50 yards, but their ability to score from beyond that distance. This ability to score from distance should be where teams focus when drafting kickers, because the data supports the conclusion that a team can find a capable kicker for shorter distances without any meaningful drop-off in production.
With 148 kicks attempted from over 50 yards last season, the average kicker was utilized 4.8 times from this distance. The difference between the top 16 kickers and bottom 15 kickers in number of makes over 4.8 kicks is 0.74 kicks per season – meaning that because of the low utilization rate at these distances, a top kicker generates an extra 2.2 points per season on average.
Many teams and fans believe that if they can draft an elite kicker, it could make the difference during critical moments of a season. However, in the last three years, the only kicker to place in the top 5 in accuracy more than once is Dan Bailey of the Cowboys, who accomplished the feat in 2012 and 2013. In fact, Walsh, who if you remember from earlier was the least accurate qualifying kicker in 2014, actually placed fourth in accuracy in 2012, showing just how volatile kickers can be from season to season.
In short, as painful as it may be for me to say this, kickers should not be drafted on the first two days of the draft. Elite college kickers with strong legs can be viable picks in rounds 4-7, but it is generally not worth spending any early-round picks on a kicker. Undrafted free agents can also be viable, and a number of elite kickers have come from the undrafted ranks, most notably Vinatieri and Steven Hauschka. Thus, despite my love for all things kicking-related, if I were advising an NFL team on draft strategy, there would be long waits for a number of kickers on draft weekend.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.