Language is a precise thing. When measured against statistics it is a very precise thing. People often interchange the terms value, importance, and difficulty. Two of those are relative terms and one is more exacting mathematically. When evaluating the kicking game, people will easily misunderstand and misuse the terms above. Question the value of a kicker and suddenly we start talking about how difficult it is to do and how important it is to a team’s success.
I cannot kick a football very far. I cannot kick it very straight. I fully acknowledge that is more difficult than many athletic skills. We have all seen a kicker win a game. We acknowledge that it is important. Value is something else entirely. In this case, we ask a very specific question: what is the appreciable difference between one kicker and another? In other words, if we replaced our kicker with the typical street free agent, what would the drop off be?
Of course, the drop off is not just pure drop off for drop off’s sake. Presumably, the savings you would get from one would be spent in another area. So, would the Texans be better off with a replacement level kicker and additional free agents at other positions or would they be better off spending that money on the kicker? That is ultimately the question we are looking at today.
AFC South Kickers
Randy Bullock— 42/45 Extra Points, 25/30 Under 50, 1/1 50+ Yards, 56.2 Touchback%
Michael Badgley— 39/39 Extra Points, 18/20 Under 50, 0/1 50+ Yards, 50.0 Touchback%
Matthew Wright— 13/15 Extra Points, 17/18 Under 50, 4/6 50+ Yards, 19.4 Touchback%
Ka’imi Fairbairn— 13/16 Extra Points, 11/13 Under 50, 4/6 50+ Yards, 36.4 Touchback%
So, Fairbairn is last in extra point percentage, Bullock and Fairbairn are almost in a dead heat for last place in field goal percentage of field goals under 50 yards, and tied for last in over 50 (not counting Badgley). He was also third in touchback percentage. In other words, you could argue he was the worst full-time kicker in the division. Following are the salaries that those players earned in 2021 (or an average of their multi-year contract).
Bullock— $2.34 million
Badgley— $0,91 million
Wright— $0.90 million
Fairbairn— $4.41 million
Did Fairbairn earn his salary last year? Of course not. No one in their right mind would claim that. However, statistics clearly demonstrate that 2021 was the worst season of his career. In 2018, he led the NFL in field goals made. He made 88 percent of his kicks that season and 95 percent of his extra points. He had touchbacks on nearly 70 percent of kick offs. Clearly, you could expect him to be a better kicker.
He is the 10th ranked kicker in terms of average salary. So, here come two very basic, but difficult questions. First, is he a top ten kicker in terms of performance? Secondly, is that four million dollars that is spent on him the most effective way to spend your salary cap dollars?
The Top and Bottom
One of the ways of deciphering value is to look at the best and worst players at a given position. Most players will obviously fit in between and the more space that there is in between the more value that position is likely to have. So, below is a look at the top end of the kicker position in 2021. Following is the worst kicker in the league listed as currently active.
Justin Tucker— 32/32 Extra Points, 29/31 Under 50 Yards, 6/6 50+ Yards, 82.2 Touchback%
Tristan Vizcaino— 10/15 Extra Points, 6/7 Under 50 Yards, 0/0 50+ Yards, 41.9 Touchback%
It should be noted that if you go by PFF grades (as we did above) that Fairbairn ranked 31st out of 32 active kickers. You would think the Texans would at least bring in someone to compete with him, but that is besides the point. That doesn’t answer the second question. Is getting a good kicker the best way to spend that money?
The Value of Things
You have now seen the heart of the value of things. It is one thing to employ good players at every position. That is certainly the goal and you can see Nick Caserio slowly but surely jettisoning bad football players and replacing them with at least competent ones. That’s a start. Championships are won when general managers are able to not only identify good football players, but also determine how much each of them should be paid.
This is where the O’Brien era went off the rails. Good players like Whitney Mercilus and Zach Cunningham were paid like really good players. Average players like Nick Martin were paid like good ones. Then there’s Fairbairn. Someday, someone smarter than me will do a study on kickers to determine a reasonable industry standard for shelf life. How long should we expect them to be good? How much money is that really worth? If the Texans paid a street free agent the league minimum salary then what kind of performance could they expect? What would they be able to get with the extra three to four million dollars? Welcome to the value of things.