Let's Find You A (College) Kicker
If you are like most Americans, there are probably only two times when you have thought about NFL kickers:
- When you were setting your fantasy lineup.
- When you have been scared to death that your kicker is going to cost the win for the team you are rooting for.
Despite all of the production value spilled into the pre-game analysis of NFL games, you almost never think about kickers until they're physically on the field. The "keys to the game" never revolve around special teams. Despite that, no matter how specialized and "non-positional" their skills are, kickers do win (and lose) teams games at the NFL level.
If you are a fan of a team like the Arizona Cardinals, which hasn't hit a 50-yard field goal all year and is just three-of-seven from 40 or more yards out, you're probably frustrated with your place kicking situation right about now. Here's the bright side: There's always the NFL draft.
One of my main issues with kicker evaluations in the draft is that most media analysis comes down to field goal percentage, which can be drastically skewed by which types of kicks are being attempted. For example, former second-round pick kicker Roberto Aguayo was touted for his high field goal percentage in his college career but he only hit five-of-ten field goals from 40 yards out or longer in his final season at Florida State, well below the NFL average.
If you are looking at the college level for a kicker, there are more important things to put weight in than field goal percentage. First, it is an expectation that NFL kickers will hit 50-yard field goals. Every team but the Arizona Cardinals have this year. Atlanta and the New York Jets have each hit six. Second, it probably serves you better to adjust field goal percentage based on the length of kicks made rather than overall field goal percentage, because a 20-yard field goal and a 60-yard field goal are clearly very different but are treated the same in field goal percentage calculation.
In an attempt to find the next savior kicker (listen up, Cardinals fans), I took a look at what this senior class of kickers can bring to the table in the NFL. This was my process:
- Eliminate all senior FBS kickers who did not hit at least one field goal of 50 or more yards in the past season, as that is basically mandatory at the NFL level.
- Create a value system (+ or - points of value relative to the NFL average) for kicks of different lengths. Both the NCAA and the NFL tracks field goals in six buckets: field goals of under 20 yards, field goals of 20-29 yards, field goals of 30-39 yards, field goals of 40-49 yards, field goals of 50-59 yards and field goals of 60 yards or more (none of these college kickers made kicks from 60 or more yards out.) For each of these buckets, I tracked the career numbers of every qualifying kicker based on the NFL average of the last three full regular seasons (2015-2017). This gave us a "Total Value" number that is essentially how many points the kicker created/lost in his college career relative to the average NFL kicker. I also extrapolated these numbers to what their value would look like over 100 kicks, because "Value" can be skewed by how often a kicker actually attempted field goals at the college level.
Out of the 17 qualifying senior kickers in the study, three of them really stood out. Remember, the wider hashes at the college football level probably make it harder to kick a field goal than at the NFL level, meaning that these numbers are probably lower than they would be at the professional level.
The top kicker in the senior class from this perspective is Matt Gay of Utah, who would be worth 4.4 points over 100 kicks relative to the NFL average. Sure, that doesn't seem like much...but even being an average kicker has value when you look at what low-end teams do in the kicking game in the NFL. Gay is a former Utah Valley soccer player who spent two years with the Utes after switching sports. Last year, he was a consensus All-American and Lou Groza Award winner. If I were to guess, he is likely to be the most talked about kicker in this class.
The next guy on this list is interesting because he only played one real year of college football. Kyle Pfau of Louisiana originally started out at LSU before transferring to Oklahoma, where he ended up backing up Austin Seibert. Seibert made 46 field goals, 223 PATs and even kicked 148 punts for the Sooners, giving no chance for Pfau to see the field. With that being said, Pfau made the most of his last year of eligibility with a second transfer.
The other kicker is John Barron II of San Diego State. Unlike Gay and Pfau, Baron commanded a starting role for the majority of his college career. He was a Lou Groza Award semifinalist in 2016, the same year he was named an All-Mountain West first-teamer, and was the second-team All-Mountain West kicker in 2018. Based on the volume of kicks he has made, one would expect Baron to be considered a more stable prospect than Pfau.
The Tier 2 kickers are ones who are likely to be on NFL radars as borderline draftable, undrafted free agent prospects and potential workout candidates. Cole Tracy is by far the most notable name on the list. Tracy transferred to LSU after three years at Assumption College (DII), leading up to first-team All-SEC honors in his one year at the FBS level. Emmit Carpenter of Minnesota and Byrce Crawford of San Jose State have also been known commodities as fairly consistent kickers. Gabriel Rui of Kansas is a bit of a curveball, as he kicked at the junior college level before his two seasons in the FBS. In his final year at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, Rui made 19 of 21 field goals (which were not included in this study because of our focus on field goal length.)
The third tier of kickers are ones who made a 50-yard field goal in 2018 but have flashed inconsistencies, in general, over their college careers.
So there you have it. The popular names in this class are going to be Utah's Matt Gay, San Diego State's John Barron II and LSU's Cole Tracy. There's a sneaky chance for an Emmit Carpenter (Minnesota) or Bryce Crawford (San Jose State) to convince teams that they are worth a pick, but this process also highlights the possibility of kickers like Kyle Pfau (Louisiana) and Gabriel Rui (Kansas) to make a difference at the NFL level despite having few kicking opportunities at the college level. There's really not a position more easy to quantify for the college-to-pro transition than this one, because of the well-kept stats at the position. If you need a kicker, this is about as good of a "senior watch list" as you are going to get.