Need a Kicker? Don't Draft One.

by Eric Eager|April 17, 2024

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The 2024 NFL Draft is almost a week away, and with that comes some exciting news from us at SumerSports. For the second straight year, myself, and former Falcons GM and SumerSports CEO Thomas Dimitroff will be hosting a live show during the first round of the draft, starting at 7:30 eastern on Thursday, April 25th. We will be joined from Detroit by correspondents Tej Seth, Ben Brown, Shawn Syed, and Sam Bruchhaus, who have been producing some of the best draft content in the space leading up to the event.  

 

Dimitroff and I will also be hosting a preview of day 3 of the draft on Saturday morning on Sirius XM NFL Radio, channel 88. Our current draft preview show can be found on that channel every Friday night at 7pm.  

In this article I want to talk about a position that is rarely talked about in the lead up to the draft, and that’s placekicker. This is for good reason: you shouldn’t draft kickers.  

I repeat: you shouldn’t draft kickers. 

While there hasn’t been a first-round pick spent on a kicker since Oakland took Sebastian Janikowski in 2000 and the last second-round kicker, Roberto Aguayo, lasted just one year with the team that drafted him, I’m going to make an argument here that you shouldn’t use any draft capital on a kicker.  

My former colleague at PFF, Timo Riske, has done great work on modeling kicking performance, and his conclusion is pretty clear: other than Justin Tucker, we can’t be all that confident that a kicker is better than a league-average player at the position, and even Tucker is worth only roughly about 0.3 wins above replacement a year.  

PFF Data Study: How confident can we be in kickers? | NFL News, Rankings and Statistics | PFF 

With a few more years of data looking forward, and going back to 1999, which is provided by the incomparably generous folks at nflfastR, I replicated Riske’s result for current kickers: Only Tucker is statistically-significantly better than the average kicker. I used a mixed-effect model with things like weather, stadium type, distance, game situation, and season (factoring in improving kicking conditions) as features. Other kickers that are gone, like John Kasay (partial career of data), Rob Bironas, Matt Stover (partial), Robbie Gould, Joe Nedney (partial), and Jason Hansen (partial) have credible intervals that avoid zero. Harrison Butker was close, which was a player that Riske pointed out as having good data in his piece.  

For the players with only the back parts of their career in the sample, there’s probably selection issues, as early-career struggles could be censored out of the sample. On the other hand, late-career slumps would not be. Interestingly, no kicker was statistically-significantly worse than the average kicker, probably due to leaving the league before a big enough sample was generated.  

Riske also showed that for all depths, whether a player was drafted had no impact on whether the kick was made. We found this to be true in our above models when tested two different ways. First, we used an indicator variable for whether a player was drafted or not. This was not statistically-significantly linked to the likelihood of making a field goal. Neither was draft position when we limited our sample to drafted kickers. Even bluntly, for all kickers drafted or not drafted from 1999-2023, here are the field goal make percentages above expectation: 

Status  FG% OE (n)  Draft Round  FG% OE (n) 
Drafted  -0.006 (8052)  1  0.030 (561) 
Undrafted  -0.002 (10594)  2  -0.042 (366) 
    3  -0.002 (475) 
    4  -0.012 (729) 
    5  -0.005 (1509) 
    6  -0.007 (2654) 
    7  -0.007 (1758) 

Put plainly, NFL teams demonstrate their preferences in the NFL Draft and free agency, and when it comes to the NFL Draft and kickers, teams’ preferences are worth next to nothing in terms of signal. Drafted kickers are not worth less than undrafted kickers, by any stretch, they are just statistically indistinguishable from them. Seeing that other positions have steeper draft curves than this, the result that follows is that the opportunity cost of using a draft pick on a kicker makes it simply not worth it. This is especially true given the graph below, which shows that drafted kickers don’t even have fatter right tails, which is one of the assets teams are buying in late April.  

Please, don’t be the reason I tweet the Arrested Development meme Thursday night.  

That should be the end of the story, but it isn’t. In a turn of events that can only be described as running up the score, the spring leagues have given us evidence that, in addition to being difficult to evaluate, placekickers represent an oversaturated market. There were hints of this dating back even to the first modern spring league, the AAF, which had future Pro Bowler Younghoe Koo (signed by Thomas Dimitroff) and 2023 accuracy champion Nick Folk. Last year’s NFC representative in the Pro Bowl, Dallas’ Brandon Aubrey, kicked for the USFL’s Birmingham Stallions in 2022 and 2023.  

But this 2024 UFL (merger of XFL and USFL) season so far has been difficult to ignore. Through 12 games there have been just five missed kicks, and four of them were over 50 yards. No kicks under 40 yards have been missed, and Michigan’s Jake Bates already has two successful 60-yard field goals and two more kicks over 50 yards to his name. This follows a 2023 USFL season where the average kicker was basically NFL level, showing one of the unquestioned successes of spring leagues: 

Distance  AAF ‘19  XFL ‘20  USFL ‘22  XFL ‘23  USFL ‘23  UFL ‘24  NFL ‘22  NFL ‘23 
10-19  100%  100% 
  •  
  •  
100% 
  •  
100%  100% 
20-29  94.7%  100%  84.6%  96.4%  100%  100%  97.5%  98.4% 
30-39  92.1%  83.3%  81.8%  85.7%  95%  100%  92.0%  94.5% 
40-49  67.9%  78.3%  53.3%  66.7%  73.5%  92.8%  80.5%  79.6% 
50+  68.8%  50%  50%  50%  64.3%  76.5%  68.8%  68.7% 
Total  84.3%  79.4%  68.4%  76.1%  85.1%  90.6%  85.0%  85.9% 

It’s important to note that not all spring league years have seen NFL-level success (namely USFL ’22 and even XFL ’23 (both p < 0.01)), but AAF ’19 (p = 0.31), XFL 2020 (p = 12), USFL 2023 (p = 0.38), and UFL (p = 0.84) have all failed to be statistically distinguishable from NFL kicking.  

One could argue a few things in different directions. The first one is that, with the spring league mostly being in the south and/or in domes and potentially with a lower level of rush against the kicker, the kicking conditions are better than in the NFL at large. That’s reasonable but looking at some of the spring leagues that started earlier in the calendar year (right after the Super Bowl versus Easter weekend) doesn’t show discernable differences from those that started later. Confounders that could be tested with better spring league data could be crowd sizes, pressure kicks, etc., as these could certainly influence the likelihood of making a kick and are unique to NFL football.  

Someone could also argue that, in further favor of the conclusions of this article, that we only need to compare the minimum (or more academically, the distribution of the minimum value) of NFL kickers with the maximum (distribution of the maximum value) of spring league kickers.  However, the results above do not suggest that these values are that different from each other, other than players at the very top (i.e., Tucker and maybe Butker). Thus, comparing averages, while probably not agreeable to someone who believes in drafting kickers, is probably appropriate for a worldview that doesn’t believe in much variability in kicker ability (y/y stability in field goal percentage over expected is r = 0.048).  

The work of Riske, which has been replicated here, showed what we intuitively have been able to see for a while, that the NFL is poor at evaluating kickers coming out of college, and that’s in large part because kicker ability is difficult to discern in general. In a market where things have explicit value, like draft picks, using scarce assets to acquire something whose worth is largely a mystery is not sound. Additionally, given current trends in our developmental league, the UFL, there isn’t a lack of kickers that are of NFL caliber, either, as the average UFL kicker (and USFL kicker last season) has basically performed at an NFL level. Ten percent of starting kickers in the league in 2023 had already cut their teeth in one spring league or another, and it stands to reason that if they were less anchored to draft capital and contracts, that number could be a lot higher.  

Noisy evaluations and a glut of sufficient talent suggest one thing come next week: don’t draft kickers.  

NFL Draft Proverbs | SumerSports 

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