Recent playoff history for the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots have shown the importance of kickers in an increasingly-competitive league. The advent of the 33-yard extra point has altered the landscape by providing another data point for kickers to differentiate themselves from one-another, creating a greater difference in value between kickers at the top of the profession and those mired in mediocrity or worse. How will front offices react to the differences in the first offseason since the longer extra point was introduced? Chuck Zodda examines the possibilities of paying NFL kickers and the approaches teams may take.
Specialists are in a unique position on NFL rosters in that teams only carry one at each of the three positions (kicker, punter, and long-snapper) at a time in order to maximize roster flexibility. With the NFL moving to longer extra points in the 2015 season, two questions that have been asked are whether or not this boosts the value of kickers and whether kicker salaries will rise due to the increased premium placed on accuracy.
If a punt is viewed as a tactical retreat and a touchdown seen as a victory in a drive-long battle, field goals are often looked at as a moral victory for an opposing defense due to the fact that they managed to prevent a touchdown in a situation where one looked probable several plays earlier. A kicker scoring three points is essentially an offense conceding that while they were able to get themselves in position to score a touchdown, they were unable to capitalize, and instead took 50% of the points they desired to score (43% with a made extra point). Right off the bat, a kicker only has maximum value in situations where his team is not capable of finishing drives.
With this in mind, the question first becomes one of resource allocation. If a team increases its touchdown percentage, it becomes less reliant on its kicker due to simply giving him fewer opportunities. However, the factors that lead to an increase in touchdown percentage are myriad, ranging from completion percentage, yards per completions, yards per rush, and so on. All of those factors require a complex interaction between the 11 players on the field, the coaching staff and scheme, as well as management of any sub packages in order to see a significant impact. We have seen money spent on a big offensive free agents time and time again (DeMarco Murray to Philadelphia in 2015, Mike Wallace to Miami in 2013, Carl Nicks to Tampa Bay in 2012), only to have that money effectively wasted due to lack of scheme fit, injury, or various other reasons.
So how much of a difference can an elite kicker make?
NFL kickers connected on 84.5% of field goals in 2015, leaving 459 points on the table through misses. Greg Zuerlein of the then-St. Louis Rams “led” the way with 10 misses, though the data is slightly skewed as two of these came from greater than 60 yards, with four more coming from 50-59 yards. Kickers also made 94.1% of extra points last season, a further reduction of 72 points from their theoretical maximum. Rookie Jason Myers of the Jacksonville Jaguars struggled the most, going just 32-for-39. Overall, missed kicks resulted in 531 fewer points than possible across the league, roughly 16.6 points per team.
On the top end, three qualifying kickers lost fewer than 10 points to misses during the season – Dan Bailey (6), Josh Brown (7), and Stephen Gostkowski (9). On the other end of the spectrum, six kickers missed kicks equaling 20 or more points over the course of 2015 – Zuerlein (32), Cairo Santos (23), Josh Lambo (22), Graham Gano (21), Justin Tucker (21), and Kyle Brindza (20). The other qualifying kickers fell in the 10-19 points-lost range.
One issue with kickers is their lack of consistency from season to season. Tucker, for example, posted field goal accuracy greater than 90% in each of his first two seasons, yet regressed to 82.5% this year. Gostkowski, on the other hand, made 82.9% of his field goals in 2012 before running off three straight years above 90%. Kicker performance will vary significantly due to the relatively small number of opportunities kickers have and the enormous influence even two additional misses have on one season’s statistics.
But those misses also have real impacts on games. In 2015, there were 59 games decided by three points or less. In 26 of those, missed kicks would have either tied or won the game for the losing team had they been made. So in 10.1% of games, missed field goals and extra points were a key reason for the loss. This also does not factor in games in which a team chose not to kick because of a lack of trust in their kicker, as well as games with greater point differentials decided by multiple missed kicks. While close games obviously have a number of plays and players who are culpable for the result, the fact is that improving kicker performance is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to improve a team’s record.
What is the likely solution?
Because teams do not like to take up roster spots with multiple specialists if possible, kickers must be easily replaced due to struggles if necessary. Teams have taken note of this already, with only $55.7 million in guaranteed money awarded to current kicker contracts according to OverTheCap.com. To put this in perspective, NFL kickers as a whole have less guaranteed money than Ndamukong Suh received in his deal last year. But there is a case to be made for greater stratification in kicker salaries, likely with shorter deals to compensate for the year-to-year performance changes.
If you look at the amount of money that has been guaranteed to kickers recently, the top end of the pay scale sees Gostkowski and Sebastian Janikowski with over $2 million per year in guaranteed money, with annual salaries averaging $4.3 million and $3.75 million respectively. I believe shorter deals with similar amounts of total guaranteed money and higher salaries would make the most sense for high-quality kicking talent. Looking at Justin Tucker, who was recently franchised by the Baltimore Ravens, the two options I would present are a two-year deal for $12 million with $7 million guaranteed, or a three-year deal for $15 million with $8 million guaranteed. These deals would give the Ravens the short-term production they desire, while maintaining long-term flexibility to find a cheaper option should Tucker regress over the course of the contract. The elephant in the room here is the franchise tag, which effectively limits Tucker’s bargaining power, and which is heavily tilted in favor of the owners. But this type of deal would reward the top kickers in the game, while still maintaining a team’s ability to pivot quickly if necessary.