Sports Reference Blog

What Would It Take For a Kicker or Punter To Be Worth the #1 Pick?

Posted by Jonah Gardner on August 25, 2016

I feel awful for Roberto Aguayo. In a decision that could be charitably described as "off-beat," the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took Aguayo, a kicker, with the 59th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Aguayo isn't the first kicker to be taken that high -- as recently as 2005, the New York Jets took Mike Nugent in the second round, while Sebastian Janikowski was drafted in the first round in 2000 -- but between the Internet, the rise of advanced statistics, and the proliferation of fantasy football, we know a lot more about kickers. Mainly, we know it's not worthwhile spending a lot of resources, in terms of salary cap space or draft capital, in order to get one, because you can usually find a decent one pretty easily and results can fluctuate widely from year-to-year because of the small sample size.

None of this is Aguayo's fault. He's just someone who realized he was good at kicking a ball and worked hard enough developing that particular skill until he could parlay it into a job. But he's suffering the consequences, nonetheless, as he's spent the summer as both an object of curiosity and a lightning rod for angry fans. This has led to a preseason that's been troubled, to say the least. Aguayo has missed three kicks in his first two preseason games (including an extra point attempt) and now he's missing them badly in practice too.

If Aguayo had been drafted in the sixth round, nobody would care. If, instead of Aguayo, the Bucs had drafted an offensive lineman who was regularly getting beaten by defenders and might be starting to look like a he wouldn't make it in the NFL, nobody but Bucs fans would care. But because he's a kicker with a 2nd round pedigree, it's become a national story.

So, with apologies to Pro-Football-Reference founder Doug Drinen, we're going to be talking about kickers today. What does a kicker actually have to do as an NFL player in order to justify being drafted 59th overall? What about first overall?

To answer that question, we'll turn to Approximate Value, or AV. AV is a way of quantifying a player's value over the course of a season (or several seasons or a career) in a way that can be compared across positions. According to AV, the best season ever was LaDainian Tomlinson's 2006 and the best career ever was Peyton Manning's. Last year, J.J. Watt led the league with an AV of 22 (if you'd like more info on how it works, here's an explainer).

PFR has AV numbers for every season by every player since 1960, including kickers and punters. However, because AV carries across positions, we can also use it to set a baseline for the average production you'd expect from any spot in the draft. We'll mainly use weighted AV, which appears in PFR's Draft Finder, to reward players for having excellent peak seasons, rather than ones who just compiled over a longer period of time.

Post-merger (and not counting 2015 or 2016), the average 59th overall pick has a career weighted AV of 21.4. The best career by a 59th pick was Aeneas Williams who had 104 AV, while 4 players taken in that spot never played or had 0 AV.

No kicker has come close to 104 weighted AV, but the average of 21.4 is very doable. In fact, since 1980, 22 kickers who were drafted met or exceeded that mark:

Drafted Players Table
Rk Year Pick Pos Tm CarAV
1 1982 86 Morten Andersen K NOR 51
2 1982 171 Gary Anderson K BUF 50
3 1992 56 Jason Hanson K DET 48
4 1990 329 Matt Stover K NYG 44
5 1993 70 Jason Elam K DEN 43
6 1980 166 Eddie Murray K DET 43
7 1991 98 John Kasay K SEA 41
8 2000 17 Sebastian Janikowski K OAK 38
9 2003 222 Josh Brown K SEA 33
10 1989 203 Pete Stoyanovich K MIA 33
11 2006 118 Stephen Gostkowski K NWE 30
12 1987 82 Jeff Jaeger K CLE 30
13 2000 169 Neil Rackers K CIN 29
14 1994 85 Doug Brien K SFO 28
15 1993 177 Todd Peterson K NYG 27
16 1999 228 Kris Brown K PIT 26
17 2004 137 Josh Scobee K JAX 26
18 1985 105 Kevin Butler K CHI 25
19 1985 195 Fuad Reveiz K MIA 25
20 1989 142 Chris Jacke K GNB 24
21 2004 65 Nate Kaeding K SDG 22
22 1980 312 Mike Lansford K NYG 22
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 8/24/2016.

However, there's some nuance to how these kickers went about getting these numbers. Take, for example, Nate Kaeding. Kaeding's career is relatively modest, he played 9 seasons and made fewer than 200 field goals. But Kaeding rarely missed. His 86.2 field goal percentage is 6th all-time among qualified kickers and he made 87% of his field goals and 100% of extra points three times, which puts him in the Top 20 all-time in that particular stat.

All of this seems pretty doable, especially for a kicker who made 88.5% of his field goals and 100% of his extra points in college. But Kaeding played for the San Diego Chargers during a time when they boasted with one of the most explosive offenses in the league. Remember that LT season from earlier? Kaeding was his kicker.

Playing in a hyper-effective offense meant that Kaeding had more chances to kick field goals and those chances were generally better than what the average kicker faced. Take 2009, which was Kaeding's best year. That season, Kaeding led the league in field goals, came in second in extra points, and made both the Pro Bowl and the AP's All-Pro First Team.

But it makes sense that Kaeding would have more chances to kick because the Chargers had the fourth best offense that year by yards per play. And, because the Chargers' offense was so good, Kaeding's average kick distance was 33.37 yards, a chip shot for most NFL kickers. Only 4 kickers that year had a shorter average FG distance than Kaeding.

So, while Kaeding's career hit the mark we were looking for, it seems likely that a kicker who was fairly close to replacement-level could replicate what Kaeding did. Josh Scobee may be a better model. Scobee went 241-301 in his career, and stayed with the team that drafted him, the Jacksonville Jaguars, from 2004 until last year, so they reaped the benefits of all of his AV. Scobee had an average field goal distance of 38.29 yards in his career, which is in the top 15 for kickers since 2004.

But Scobee's numbers in college were significantly worse than Aguayo's. He made 71.4% of field goals and 94.7% of his extra points. While you could look at that and assume that Aguayo's superiority in college means he'll be better than Scobee in the NFL, you won't, because it doesn't explain why kickers like Alex Henery (89.5 FG%) and Brett Baer (90 FG%) washed out in the NFL or never even made it.

Not only that, but there's also an entire universe of kickers that we haven't been talking about: undrafted ones. While PFR's Season Finder doesn't have weighted AV, it does have the unweighted version. Since 1980, 65 kickers had an unweighted career AV of at least 22. That means that only 33.8% of the kickers who produced the value of the average 59th overall pick were even drafted at all.

In other words, being good kicker seems to be essentially a matter of luck and opportunity and teams probably shouldn't give up much of value to obtain one. However, on the flip side, how much capital would it be worth giving up if you knew with certainty that you were getting the best kicker ever?

By AV (and common sense), the best kicker ever was Morten Andersen. He had 51 weighted AV; in contrast the average post-merger fourth overall pick was worth 54.4 weighted AV while the average fifth pick was worth 47.4. So a team could either slightly reach for him at four or actually beat the average by taking a kicker fifth overall, as long as said kicker was Morten Andersen.

If you're curious, the average number one overall pick's career weighted AV is 64.1. However, because of how the weighting system works, Andersen basically ends up getting no credit for over a third of his career. Using raw AV, rather than the weighted version, Anderson actually had a better career (97 AV) than the average number one overall pick's career raw AV of 81.1. So if a team could draft Morten Anderson and sign him to a lifetime contract, they should take him first overall.

What about punters? The best punter, according to AV, is Shane Lechler, who had 42 weighted AV, right around the average for the 12th overall pick of 43.6. Lechler's best season was 2009, when he had 96 punts and averaged 51.1 yards per punt.

For a punter to justify the first overall pick, you would have to know, in advance, that he was capable of replicating Lechler's 2009 season 20 times, despite the fact that there's only been 75 player seasons with 96 or more punts and just seven where a punter averaged even 50 yards per punt while punting at least 10 times. And, worst of all, at the end of this epic punting career, he'd still only be worth 63 weighted AV, so he'd have been a slight bust.

Given that Lechler was able to have a 7 AV season by merely punting a bunch, this surely bodes well for the draft prospects of ROBO-PUNTER, the hypothetical perfect punter created by commenters at Football Outsiders. ROBO-PUNTER is a punter who can make sure that every single one of his punts is downed at the 1-yard-line. Given that drives that started within the 2-yard-line resulted in scores just 16.7% of the time, as opposed to the average of 35.7% on all drives in 2015, ROBO-PUNTER would have a solid case not just for the number one pick, but for Defensive Player of the Year. He wouldn't accept it though because ROBO-PUNTER cares far more about the team than his own individual accomplishments.

Again, the most important point to keep in mind here is that none of this is Roberto Aguayo's fault. If all the attention really has gotten into his head, if the specter of Steve Blass starts to loom over this whole thing, blame the Bucs, who probably need to spend more time in the Play Index before next year's draft.

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