Are Kickers Underpaid?

The place kicker is a unique player because his impact on the game is solitary and direct. A kicker's performance, accounting for field goal distance and attempts, is independent from the performance of the rest of his team. No other position in football is like that, even the punter.

Recently I calculated the weight of each phase of the game in terms of team wins. The results are listed below.


VariableImportance
O PASS19%
D PASS12%
O RUN7%
D RUN7%
O INT9%
D INT9%
O FUM5%
D FFUM5%
PEN6%
FG/XP5%
KICK7%
K RET1%
PUNT3%
P RET4%


The place kicker's performance accounts for at least 5% of the variance in regular season team wins. I say 'at least' because usually the kicker performs kick-offs in addition to field goals and extra points. Accordingly, he should account for 5% of the salary cap as well.

The table below lists all kickers' salary cap charges by year from 2002 to 2006. Also listed in the team salary cap and the total league salary cap for all teams. The final column lists the percentage of the league's salary cap allocated to place kickers.


YearK SalaryTeam CapLeague CapK Share
200225,062,72371,100,0002,275,200,0001.1%
200329,478,79975,000,0002,400,000,0001.2%
200436,922,48985,500,0002,736,000,0001.3%
200538,873,799102,000,0003,264,000,0001.2%
200665,056,804109,000,0003,488,000,0001.9%
Total$195,394,614$442,600,000$14,163,200,0001.4%


Since 2002, kickers have earned 1.4% of the total salary available in the NFL despite accounting for at least 5% of the variance in team wins. But things are looking up for them, as their share of the total NFL salary in 2006 rose to 1.9%.

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12 Responses to “Are Kickers Underpaid?”

  1. Alan says:

    You're wrong. I've challenged you on this point at FO as well, (I post as Yaguar there) so feel free to respond on either site.

    Your assumption is predicated on the idea that the best kicker in the league from one season is likely to remain the among the best the following season. That's not the case. Kickers fall within a very similar range overall for career field goal percentage, provided that they stick around long enough to have a halfway-decent sample size.

    Most of them fall within a particular range between 75% and 83% or so. Let's say the absolute best kicker in the league is going to get 83% in league-average situations, (this is a better percentage than Adam Vinatieri or David Akers' career percentage) and the worst kicker in the league will get about 75%. (No established kicker in the league is consistently this low, but I imagine that such kickers exist in the NFL.)

    Give them each a league-average number of FG attempts (32 is probably a decent estimate) from a league-average set of distances.

    The astonishingly great kicker would be expected to make about 2.56 more field goals, or 7.7 more points than the worst kicker, on average. That's a fairly negligible difference, even in the extreme case of worst kicker vs best kicker. (In comparison, Football Outsiders estimates Reggie Wayne was worth over 40 points above replacement last year.)

    Getting a good season out of your kicker can help a lot, but that league-leading kicker who makes 95% of his field goals is a career 80% guy who just got lucky.

  2. Brian Burke says:

    Hi Yaguar. You make a great point, but that doesn't mean "I'm wrong."

    The same caveat about lucky performance in one year vs. the next holds true for all positions, not just kickers. The relative worth of the position therefore holds.

    Also, keep in mind you've cited mere accuracy percentage. That does not take into account distance and environmental effects like the data I used does.

    Still, great point.

  3. Brian Burke says:

    The more I think about it, the more uncertain I am. Although all positions exhibit seasonal flux, various positions may exhibit different amounts. I'd say I'd need to do some more homework on this one.

  4. Tarr says:

    The same caveat about lucky performance in one year vs. the next holds true for all positions, not just kickers. The relative worth of the position therefore holds.

    Not necessarily. In order to prove that, you would need to show that Reggie Wayne's year-to-year performance shows the same degree of regression toward the league-average performance as the typical place kicker's does. I think that's an impossible thing to show, since I don't believe it's true.

    As I said back in your "importance of Special Teams" post, there's a difference between something being important to success, and predictive of future success. Only the latter is worth spending salary cap dollars on.

  5. Brian Burke says:

    So you guys are saying it goes a little like this:

    Every player's variance in performance can be classified as 2 factors, true repeatable talent and luck (or sample effects).

    var(obs) = var(true) + var(luck) + covar(true*luck)

    Since luck is not related to true talent (it is random after all), the covar term is zero.

    In theory, players should be rewarded proportately to their true repeatable talent, and not just their observed performance.

    Different positions tend to have different ratios of var(true):var(luck), so we'd need to know that before calculating their "deserved" share of team salary.

    I also acknowledge there are supply effects not considered. There is probably a larger supply of people who can kick field goals than can play linebacker in the NFL.

  6. Tarr says:

    Good summary. Yes that is essentially what I am saying.

  7. Patrick says:

    In theory, players should be rewarded proportately to their true repeatable talent, and not just their observed performance.

    You also have to remember that, especially for field goal kickers, the coaches know what their true repeatable talent is. They see their percentages in practice with much, much higher statistics.

    There's also the slight caveat that kickers (FG+kickoff) won't have the same relative value on all teams. Field goals are offense - kickoffs are defense. On a team with an already-strong offense, a good field goal kicker isn't that needed - he'll end up just kicking a bunch of short field goals anyway (see Vanderjagt, Mike), and anyone could've done that.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Don't forget it's a business, therefore, by definition, kickers get exactly what they're worth, what the market will bear. They're not selling used cars on commission. Or maybe they are. As Alan pointed out, one is much like the other and easily replaced. True, the kicker accounts for the dramatic one-play, last second heroics (or not), but that's the same on every team. Their statistical similarity drives down the price.

    Do you think those 28,000 people on the Broncos season ticket waiting list signed up because of Elam's record-tying long kick or 40+ yard %?

    We all know TV revenue dominates. ESPN shows the touchdown pass highlight, not the point-after.

    People are still wearing Elway's #7 to the games. I wear my Tom Nalen #66 with pride. Talk about underpaid. I'd love to see an analysis based on touches per game. If the center fumbles even just 1% of the time (about once a game), or allows a 2% sack rate, he's on the practice squad.

    Love the site.

  9. Thomas G. Steffens says:

    Field goals play to great a role in games. Kickers aren't really football players. The game would be more dramatic if field goals didn't exist. Would you want to give teams a point for every ten yards they make? The game would turn into mush.

  10. David Mason says:

    Brian, you said you took environmental effects into account in your research on kickers. I was just wondering how you did this or where you got the data from to do this?

    Thanks, David

  11. Anonymous says:

    David,

    I believe that just by the sampling of the kickers that it takes into account for the environmental factors because the kicks in domes and in Green Bay's winter's are included in that data. I may be wrong, but that's my 2 cents.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I know I'm late to the game on this and not much of a statistician, but here's my two cents.

    I think the original premise of compensating kickers based on their contribution was a good one. While the point about their interchangeability was a great one, I think that should only be a factor in reducing the spread of salaries from the best kicker to worst kicker, not to reducing their pay as a position. Also I think you've largely nullified that as a factor by taking every kicker and every kick in the league/season into account.
    The main market factor reducing their pay isn't that there are more people who can kick compared to the talent level at other positions, but that there are more people who can kick relative to the number of kicking jobs in the NFL. Most teams might carry seven offensive linemen, three running backs, but only ONE kicker. That's compounded by the interchangeability factor.
    However when you look at kickers in terms of their contribution to the franchise it definitely seems to me that they should get paid more. Look at a wide receiver for example. That player may touch the ball 12 times in a game. If he drops three of those passes, that's still a 75% catch rate and not terribly significant on the outcome of a game (unless one of them would have scored points). Compare that with the percentage of times/plays that a kicker affects the outcome of a game - a play that results in a lead change or breaking a tie. True that the efficiency of the best kicker to that of the worst kicker is a small difference when comparing kickers. But if you look at how often kickers' touches come with the outcome of the game on the line even a small variance in success can have a disproportionate effect on the success of a team.
    The only thing I'm not sure of in all this is whether the "luck" factor actually has any more weight for kickers than it does for any other position in the game.

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