Expected Points: A Better Way to Analyze Place Kicking in the NFL and in College
The analysis of NFL kickers rarely goes beyond the 10-second field goal percentage graphic as the special teams unit lines up. The main problem with this is that field goal percentage treats every kick, no matter where on the field it is kicked from, as an equal data point. In reality, you’re 15 times more likely to miss a field goal of 50 yards or longer than a field goal of less than 30 yards.
By not accounting for field goal length, which greatly impacts field goal percentage, the functional value of a total field goal percentage stat is thin. The simplest and quickest way to improve the analysis of the kicking game is to use the NFL’s kicking splits, adjusting for the expected points per attempt in those ranges. The NFL records field goals into five buckets:
- 20>-yard field goal attempts
- 20-29-yard field goal attempts
- 30-39-yard field goal attempts
- 40-49-yard field goal attempts
- 50<-yard field goal attempts
From there, we can make claims for what should be expected for an average NFL kicker, based on the field goal percentage of 2017 kicks in those buckets.
- 20>-yard field goal attempts (9 of 9): 3.0 expected points per attempt
- 20-29-yard field goal attempts (238 of 243): 2.93 expected points per attempt
- 30-39-yard field goal attempts (258 of 301): 2.57 expected points per attempt
- 40-49-yard field goal attempts (254 of 320): 2.38 expected points per attempt
- 50<-yard field goal attempts (107 of 154): 2.08 expected points per attempt
Comparing NFL Kickers Using Expected Points
At this point, we can compare what individual kickers did in these ranges, relative to what was expected, and figure out what their value (in points) was. For each bucket, what was measured for each individual kicker was: (((Individual Made Field Goals/Individual Field Goal Attempts)-(League Made Field Goals/League Made Field Goal Attempts))*Individual Field Goal Attempts)*3)
This gives us points above or below the league average for all five buckets for every kicker. Click here for the full data.
Below are the top-10 most valuable kickers in the league from last season:
San Francisco’s Robbie Gould was the most valuable place kicker in the league last year, earning the 49ers 16.5 points above the average kicker on attempts of 30 yards or longer. Second on the list was First-Team All-Pro Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein of the Los Angeles Rams. The only other kicker worth double-digit points above the average kicker last year was Justin Tucker of the Baltimore Ravens, who was a Second-Team All-Pro.
These were the 10 most costly kickers in the league last season:
Of the seven most-costly kickers in the sport last year, all seven are either free agents (Blair Walsh, Nick Folk, Connor Barth, Nick Novak and Younghoe Koo) or fighting for a roster spot (Aldrick Rosas and Brandon McManus.) Based on accolades and job security, it seems clear that this simple point valuation system reflects the value of individual kickers in a way that is lost by total field goal percentage. Flashing a “Points Above/Below NFL Average: X.X” graphic would be just as easy as “Field Goal Percentage: XX.X%” graphic, all while being rooted in a much more meaningful number.
Uses for College Scouting
This valuation system could not only assist teams in self-scouting and the ability to highlight kickers on the free market, but it could also remove much of the signal from the noise in scouting college football. For example, 36 NFL kickers had at least 10 shots at a field goal last year. Of those 36, 32 of them (88.89 percent) hit at least one field goal of 50 or more yards. Those four kickers who didn’t (Walsh, Graham Gano, Dustin Hopkins and Jason Myers) combined for just seven field goal attempts of 50 yards or more last season. To put that into perspective, Matt Prater (11), Matt Bryant (9), Kai Forbath (9) and Stephen Hauschka (9) had more attempts as individuals in that “bucket” than those four kickers had combined.
This is all to say: NFL kickers often get opportunities to kick 50-plus-yard field goals and it’s a prerequisite for place kicking at the professional level.
Of the 355 FBS kickers who attempted a field goal in the 2017 season, only 49 of them (13.8 percent) hit a field goal of 50 or more yards. Total field goal percentage would give you no context that most college football teams do not even attempt field goals of this length.
Knowing what we now know, making a list of scoutable college kickers would be as simple as:
- Writing off everyone who hasn’t record at least one field goal of 50-plus-yards recently.
- Narrowing down the list to returning players (last year’s underclassmen who did not declare for the 2018 NFL draft.)
- Applying our NFL kicking “bucket” standards to college players and filtering out those who are less valuable than the league average.
Out of the potential 355 place kickers in college football who attempted at least one field goal last year, only five (1.4 percent) pass these three filters. For all intents and purposes, this should be the “watch list” of future pro kickers (at least at the FBS level) going into the 2018 season:
By far the most valuable (from an NFL standard perspective) kicker returning to college football this year is Utah’s senior Matt Gray, a former Utah Valley soccer player who connected on five of six field goals of 50 yards or longer on his way to All-American honors. Behind him are two mid-major kickers, Bryce Crawford (San Jose State) and Chandler Staton (Appalachian State.) Crawford, a senior, kicked the longest successful field goal in college football last season, while Staton, a redshirt sophomore, hit eight of nine field goals in a half-season as App State’s primary place kicker. Rounding out the list are probably college football’s two most popular kickers: Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship and Wisconsin’s Rafael Gaglianone. Blankenship best known for wearing glasses while on the job. It is impossible to watch a Wisconsin game without announcers mentioning the team’s 238-pound Brazilian kicker.
There are subtleties that these numbers don’t account for, like playing surface, weather or the difference between college hashes and NFL hashes. With that being said, looking at place kicking from a “points above/below expectation” standpoint rather than a field goal percentage standpoint is where the future of kicking analysis needs to be headed.