The NFL's Kicker Problem

By Alex Laughlin | May 19, 2024

In the NFL, the margin for error is incredibly small. The outcome of every tight game can be traced back to the results of just a few plays. Part of what makes the NFL so great is its parity, as any team can win or lose on a given day depending on how closely they fly to the sun. Because of this small gap separating wins and losses, the kicker has become one of the most scrutinized positions in football. Field goal and extra point kicking plays a significant role in deciding games, and can make or break entire seasons. For these reasons, the NFL has started to place more value in kickers, which is evident through the draft. Go back fifteen years, and you’d rarely see a kicker taken before the middle of the fifth round. More recently, however, it’s happened in each of the past five years, with not just one, but two kickers being taken before the fifth round in the NFL’s most recent draft.

In the 2023 NFL draft, 3 franchises selected kickers. The 49ers, Patriots, and Packers selected Jake Moody, Chad Ryland, and Anders Carlson in the third, fourth, and sixth rounds, respectively. Each one of those kickers went on to miss critical field goals that ended up costing their teams games, and not one finished their rookie season within the top half of kickers in FG%. Ryland in particular finished the regular season with a dreadful 64% of attempted field goals made, placing him last among all starters. Meanwhile, rookie undrafted free agent kicker Brandon Aubrey missed only two field goals all year for the Cowboys, making the most kicks of any player and leading the NFL in points scored. With so much draft capital being spent in exchange for such poor returns, I was inspired to investigate the history of the NFL’s success drafting kickers.

From 2014-2022, 15 kickers had their names called in the NFL draft. These players were the best of the best in college football, having proved themselves time and time again in order to be considered for the draft. Since kicking in college is no different from kicking in the NFL (maybe even harder, given the wider hash marks), one might expect the elite NCAA performers to seamlessly translate their skills to professional football. When breaking down how long these players lasted in the league, however, a surprising trend arises.

A surprising 40% of drafted kickers didn’t even last two years in the pros, a very poor hit rate when considering the ready supply of cheap veteran kickers ready to go. One kicker who only lasted a year was Roberto Aguayo, widely regarded as one of the best college kickers of all time. After being drafted in the second round of the 2016 draft, he hit a league-worst 71% of his kicks to start and end his stint in the pros.

If a kicker makes it past their rookie year, they’re all but guaranteed to last in the NFL. The only kicker in our sample to last at least one year in the league and not be on a roster today is Zane Gonzalez, who’s been forced off the field by injury rather than poor performance. Utilizing this criteria of whether the player is currently on an active roster, another way of visualizing this data is presented below.

Just over half of the kickers drafted in our time period are still active, showing the NFL’s relative ineptitude at scouting kickers. Only adding to this phenomenon is the fact that only 3 of the 8 kickers not to flame out early ended up kicking for the team that drafted them. Between all of the kickers that ended up on new teams early in their careers, there is one constant: they all missed kicks. Whether they lost a competition in training camp or fell apart in the regular season, they ended up getting cut before being scooped up by another team. Speaking volumes towards the variance of NFL kicking, some of the best kickers in the NFL experienced this: Harrison Butker didn’t make the Panthers’ initial 53 man roster after being drafted by them, and was quickly picked up by the Chiefs where he became a star. Daniel Carlson was cut after going 1 for 4 in two games as a Viking, but was then signed by the Raiders where he became an All-Pro. Even when drafting good kickers, the front offices that draft them still end up losing.

When accounting for both time in the league and whether they stay with the team that drafted them, the data shows that drafting a kicker is simply a bad investment. Only three kickers drafted in the last decade (Tyler Bass, Jason Sanders, and Evan McPherson) have managed to stay on their original team for more than two years, and none of them are above 85% (roughly average) hitting field goals for their career. Drafting a kicker just doesn’t make sense, especially when considering the prevalence of UDFA kickers in the NFL.

The majority of starting kickers in the NFL went undrafted, and the same is true for the top 10 active kickers in FG%. Not only are most kickers UDFAs, but most of the good ones are as well, taking away any potential “high risk, high reward” argument. Taking a kicker in the draft becomes even more illogical when factoring in the cheaper cost of undrafted free agents relative to drafted players. For reference, roughly 30% of the entire NFL is made up of UDFAs – for kickers, that number nearly doubles. This issue of availability makes it all the more difficult to justify drafting a kicker, as you’re missing out on taking a player that has a much higher value above replacement.

When considering all of the factors at play, it’s easy to conclude that the NFL should just stop drafting kickers. Performance in college isn’t predictive of NFL success; even when it is, it often ends up being for another franchise’s benefit. On top of that, kickers have a much lower value above replacement than other positions, bringing a significant opportunity cost for any front office that chooses to select one. But NFL teams, rather than adjusting to this by drafting fewer kickers, have done the exact opposite – draft capital spent on kickers is on the rise. As the league leans more and more heavily on analytics, it’s increasingly important that the drawbacks of expending valuable draft capital on kickers are identified. Football’s era of optimization is upon us, leaving franchises with a choice: adapt or be left behind.


Kyle Shanahan: Mastermind of the Most Electrifying Offensive Scheme in the NFL Today

By Aakash Adhia | November 14, 2023

The 49ers offense has gotten off to a scorching start this season. They are averaging 30+ points a game right now and they are near the top of the league in most major statistical categories . They are littered with skill position talents from the dynamic Christian McCaffrey to Deebo Samuel , Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle . They have a quarterback in Brock Purdy who is like a point guard who knows how to get the ball to his playmakers . The offensive line finds a way to just open up running lanes and maul opposing defenses. And to top it all off, they have arguably the best play caller in the league in Kyle Shanahan who has an incredibly creative scheme and finds ways to get his players the ball in open space for them to wreak havoc.