Ranking The 2013 NFL Kickers (Or Why Alex Henery Doesn't Deserve Your Support)

Everyone knows that NFL kickers are getting better. The numbers make this obvious. We saw an all-time high for field goal accuracy in 2013: over 86%. And that's despite many more long attempts. Field goal tries from over 50 yards have increased 57% in the last decade.

When ranking kickers, we have to take into account the new landscape. For an example, just look close to home. After his first three seasons, Alex Henery is tied for fourth all time in overall field goal accuracy among players with at least 80 attempts. But if you check out the top 20 on that list, 17 of them played in the last two years. This is like the late 1990s in baseball -- everyone's breaking records.

More to the point, we can't quote field goal accuracy without taking distance into account. As Jimmy Kempski noted, Henery doesn't look nearly as good when you compare him to his peers. Among full time kickers since 2011, Henery is tied for the fewest attempts over 50 yards (5). He also has the shortest "long field goal" (51). If everyone else is taking longer attempts and making them, Henery's value is significantly lower than his overall accuracy would suggest.

Last offseason, I took a deep dive into Henery's value, comparing him to other kickers in 2012. By generating an estimated value for every kick, we could plot how much each kicker actually contributed to his team as compared to the league standard. The results put Henery just a hair above average, with the noted caveat of having not a single make over 50 yards.

This year I wanted to go deeper. To start, I pulled all 2013 field goal attempts and plotted them out. While upgrading from last year's 5-yard buckets required a little smoothing, the granular data this year should be more exact:

Cool, right? As you can see, kicks from in close are automatic and everything up to about 32 yards out is a 90% success rate or higher. But perhaps even more impressive, kickers in 2013 maintained over 80% accuracy up to 45 yards out -- and 70% all the way to 55 yard attempts. The data gets meager from there, but the graph is proof of how great NFL kickers have become.

Anyway, with this data, it becomes fairly easy to generate an estimated point value for every field goal attempt. For example, a 35 yard try is worth 2.63 points while a 50 yarder is worth 2.1 points. If a kicker makes a kick from that distance, he adds points to his team above the expected value. Missing, he loses his team the expected points. (The only major caveat here is weather conditions. Certainly a field goal into strong wind would have a lower expected value than one in a dome.)

This year, we'll also add kickoff analysis. I spent some time playing with large data sets of kickoffs and ultimately was disappointed by the many problems in the NFL's play by play data. So at least until Football Outsiders releases its always-awesome game charting this summer, I can't work with the type of granular data on field goals above. The next best thing is Pro Football Focus' kickoff stats. They track distance, touchbacks, and average yard line start. I adjusted that data to eliminate the effect of onside kicks, but there are other variables (including weather) which still exist outside the scope of the investigation.

For kickoffs, the goal is to reach a similar expected value score. With help from Derek Sarley, we calculated a quick and dirty correlation between touchbacks and starting drive position of .67, suggesting that kickers have about two-thirds of the responsibility on kickoffs. Using that, we can multiply each kicker's total drive start yardage difference from the league average by .67, then by the approximately 0.06 expected points each extra yard is worth. Again, it's not a perfect score, but it will give us a good estimate.

Got all that? Click on the table below to enlarge the full results:

Hopefully the table isn't too confusing. Let's break it down. The left hand side is kickoff data, and you can see adjusted kickoff distance and drive start. From there you can calculate points generated in relation to the average kicker (KICKOFF PTS). On the right side are field goals, first the basic data then the estimated values based on the calculations above, leading to the FG PTS above or below average. Finally, TOTAL PTS combines the two scores and ranks all kickers (including those who only kickoff or attempt field goals).

The best kickers of 2013 did well on both metrics. Dan Bailey of the Cowboys, for example, helped force opponents to start their drives 1.9 yards further back than average. Over the course of the season, that was worth just over a touchdown in field position. On field goals, he made over 93% of his attempts, when the average kicker would have only made 84.5%. That was another 8 points he generated for Dallas, bringing Bailey's total points over average to a league-leading 15.1. If we can translate that using Brian Burke's data at Advanced NFL Stats, Bailey was worth about as much in expected points added as the 25th-ranked quarterback.

On the other end of the spectrum, Henery ranked third-worst in the NFL last year. He lost the Eagles approximately 10.8 points, split about equally between kickoffs and field goals. Henery was near the bottom of the pack in kickoff distance and average drive start, losing 1.6 yards per kickoff. Meanwhile, his 80% field goal accuracy should have been better, given he took mostly shorter kicks. The league average accuracy for his attempts would have been 85.8%.

Though Henery has some ardent supporters, it's tough to find any silver lining for him in these numbers. Only two kickers in this sample had worse results: a historically-bad rookie and a veteran who was fired in December. Maybe Henery can improve this offseason and post a better effort in 2014. But I wouldn't count on it. At the very least, the Eagles must bring in competition for what is clearly one of their weakest positions.

All The All-22 You Need For The Wild Card Round

There has been a wealth of coaches tape coverage this season that I've been woefully negligent about linking to from this blog. Hopefully all of you have caught on without my help, but make sure to catch up on the work of our esteemed Philly analysts:

  • Sheil Kapadia has two All-22 posts this week. The first is on the introduction of the sweep run, with narrated insights from the offensive line. The second looks back at Mychal Kendricks' performance against Jimmy Graham in 2012 and against other tight ends in general. That'll be a key matchup in Saturday's wild card game.
  • Derek Sarley, meanwhile, took his usual scattershot approach over at the Daily News/Philly.com. Looks like Monte Kiffin's main advice to his defense was to hold early and often, but Nick Foles bears some responsibility for the offense's misfires as well. The QB missed opportunities and made some surprisingly bad calls on packaged plays. Hopefully that gets worked out this week.
  • Last but not least, Ryan over at Chip Wagon gave us more diagrams of new packaged plays and run game tweaks.

Why Nick Foles Is Better Than Ever (But Can't Stay This Good)

I call him SuperNick. The man who threw seven touchdown passes in little more than three quarters of play deserves such a cartoon moniker. But how did "one of the better backups in the NFL" become in one afternoon the guy who plays what "might have been the best three-quarters of a game we've ever witnessed"?

The simple answer is, he didn't. With the notable exception of four horrendous quarters against Dallas where he looked like he sustained a concussion before he ever got to the stadium, Foles has looked good all year. Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg may have the quarterback guru reputation, but Chip Kelly's offense has been much friendlier to QBs than he gets credit for. Why? Because his spread-option, up tempo, zone read running attack forces opponents to pick their poison. Kelly has repeated versions of this quote for years:

"They can't defend it all. I'm really happy with how we threw the ball. If you're going to devote nine guys and try to stop the run, God bless you, and we'll throw it."

Since early in the season, defenses have made their choice: plug the box with seven or eight players and keep just one safety back deep. That often leaves man-to-man coverage on the outside against DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper. Those are golden matchups for a quarterback, but the Eagles haven't executed. As Sheil Kapadia wrote after the Cowboys game, "An average QB performance likely would have yielded 300+ yards and a score in the 20s." Unfortunately, Foles couldn't make that happen. Neither could Matt Barkley, as Derek Sarley showed last week.

Jump ahead to the Raiders game, and Foles finally started taking advantage of those one-on-one matchups, just as he did against the Buccaneers. Fran Duffy diagrammed all 7 TDs, and over and over you saw Cooper and Jackson beating man coverage -- and passes actually finding them. The gains were comical. Check out how Foles' numbers on long passes differ from last year (stats courtesy Pro Football Focus):

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To start with, Foles is attempting about 50% more long passes than he did with Andy Reid at the helm. That's a big jump. His current rate of 16.1% is near the top of the league, after placing in the bottom half last season. This change is entirely about the offense; Michael Vick has also seen a spike in his deep balls, bringing him back to 2010 levels after declines the last two years.

But where things start to get crazy is the long ball effectiveness. Foles completed only 36% of passes 20 yards or longer in 2012. That's up to nearly 53% so far this year. Long ball completion percentage is a huge indicator of success. Look at the list of QBs who posted 48% or above last year: Kaepernick, Rodgers, P. Manning, Newton, Griffin, Brees, Wilson. That's elite territory.

Can Foles keep that completion rate up? Unclear. While there may be some regression to the mean, I'm actually bullish on this front. Kelly's offense seems to be giving his QBs a boost. Vick has also seen a double-digit jump in 20+ yard completion rate, so Foles' numbers may not be an aberration.

Touchdown and interception rates are another matter. Foles is averaging an insane four TDs for every ten long passes he throws. Eight out of his ten completions at that distance have gone for six points. He also has no interceptions at any distance all year -- the only quarterback with more than 75 passes who can say that. (No fumbles either.)

Even if the completion percentage stands, those most certainly won't. Last year, RGIII led the league in touchdown rate on passes of 20 yards or more -- at only 19.4%. Even if defenses don't significantly adjust their coverage schemes (although I expect they'll have to back out of the box more now), Foles simply can't count on the type of luck he's had so far with defenders falling down, receivers wide open, and more. He also eventually will start throwing interceptions. Last year he threw them on just 1.9% on all throws, but Football Outsiders' adjusted interception rate showed a more pedestrian 4.2% after accounting for defenders dropping would-be picks.

The first takeaway here is that SuperNick's current outsized numbers will almost certainly come back to Earth. He may be good the rest of the year, but he won't be that good. The second takeaway is more important, though. Foles' improvement is only over a small sample, but it may not be an anomaly. Kelly is putting his quarterbacks in a great position to succeed, and when defenses change to prevent that, it will only give McCoy more room to run. If the Chip's scheme looks this good with competent QB play from a limited upside guy like Foles, think about what it might do with a true top-tier talent at the position.

Eagles-Patriots Preseason Thoughts: This Offense Is Going To Be Fun

  • I'm not fretting about Fletcher Cox. As Derek Sarley laid out quite plainly, the problem on those first few run plays was much more about spacing in the new 3-4 defensive lineup. The bigger problem was Trent Cole, who looked totally out of place as a stand-up linebacker. Maybe he'll get better, but I wouldn't count on it. The sample size wasn't large, but I thought Brandon Graham looked a lot more comfortable out there. 
  • In nickel packages the Eagles tended to switch to a four-down linemen look, and Cole looked like his normal self there. Back in April I suggested that the coaches keep Cole as a down rusher -- even consider starting him at 3-4 defensive end. That latter option is probably off the table now that Cole has slimmed down for his OLB role, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him has a dedicated pass rush specialist in exclusive four-linemen looks before long.
  • As a broader point, the 3-4 defensive transition is going to be rough. Not only do some of the players not fit into their defined roles, but the spacing issues will probably continue. Good offensive coaches will exploit this inexperienced front, and Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans are going to get mauled at the second level.

  • On the touchdown pass, Sheil Kapadia says:  "Vick said [DeSean] went deep because the Patriots had a single high safety." Jackson's ability to stretch coverage is even more necessary now that Jeremy Maclin is out for the year. If can't keep safeties honest, the run game and short passes become difficult.
  • Zach Ertz looks like he needs some serious work. He's not a speedy receiver (only 4.68 second 40 yard dash) and he looks totally lost blocking. Here Ertz is at the top of the formation letting Jerod Mayo (admittedly a good linebacker) get by him without so much as slowing him down. While the offensive line is getting a good push up the middle, Mayo comes in off the edge unblocked and makes the tackle:

  • Here's a cool play: a zone-read design where the quarterback is looking at the defensive tackle instead of the end. It's the Eagles' fourth play from scrimmage, with Vick deciding whether to hand off to Chris Polk or keep it himself. The typical zone-read we've seen in the NFL so far (and we also saw from the Eagles on Friday night) involves letting the defensive end come upfield unblocked. If he goes for the QB, you hand it off. If he goes for the RB, the QB keeps it. Same idea here, but Vick is reading Vince Wilfork at defensive tackle. If he had sprinted to his left to get Polk, Vick would have had a huge hole up the middle. Because he stayed in his lane, Polk gets the hand off and has two double teams to run behind on the right (click to embiggen):
  • Just as I was drawing this play up, Chris Brown posted an extensive review of Chip's play calling, including this one (with a gif). You should definitely check that out.
  • Brown talks about "packaged plays" as well, and Sheil has a glorious medley of screen caps on those run-pass options.
  • However, my favorite play of the night was the one below. What looked like a zone-read play to the left was really a play-action rollout to the backside. Vick has a clear run-pass option on this play and it's killer for the defense. This is something Foles doesn't present -- a dangerous running threat out of the backfield. The Patriots defenders who weren't sucked in by the play action aren't sure whether to converge on Vick or cover their receivers, so neither happens. Easy 19-yard completion to Riley Cooper:
  • Lane Johnson looked athletic and powerful. Sheil had good shots of him pancaking defenders and getting to the second level: here and here
  • Fellow Eagles Almanac scribe Dan Klausner is trying to convince me that Chris Polk is ready for the big time. I'm open to the idea, but haven't seen it yet. Certainly he is the better pass blocker (see Sheil's screencaps here), but Bryce Brown is a much more dangerous weapon. Watching him explode through holes or grab passes out of the backfield, it's obvious that Brown's someone you want to have the ball. Perhaps it's a silly hypothetical, but I can't shake the feeling that Brown would have exploded through that hole for a first down on the Wilfork zone-read.
  • Nick Foles moved the ball very efficiently in the Eagles' first real up tempo test. See more from Jimmy Kempski.

For much much more on everything Chip Kelly and the Birds, buy the Eagles Almanac!

More on Chip Kelly and Versatility

In honor of the Eagles Almanac kickstarter (pre-order your copy now!), Derek Sarley got back in the saddle to write about Chip Kelly, Eagles, Versatility or Something Like That:

When Reid’s offense didn’t work, it was usually for one of two reasons. Either the pressure was overwhelming his offensive line – giving the QB no time to hit those big plays – or the defense was playing sound, “contain-y” football and his guys just couldn’t execute the short/mid-range game consistently enough to sustain drives.

Chip will have his own challenges to solve – number one being that no one’s going to give him a six-man box to whale away at for more than a couple of plays before they change things up. (At the NFL level, every team has enough speed to do more than sit back and hope.)

It’s this realization, I believe, that’s driving Chip’s desire for versatility. He doesn’t need guys who can add “bonus plays” to his regular offense – he needs guys who can force the defense to let him run his regular offense, even when that’s the last thing the defense wants to do.

Great stuff as always.

"Mixing It Up"

Derek Sarley:

Let's look at every passing play in the Lions game and see why those statements carry so much meaning.

Wait, every Detroit passing play? Every Eagles coverage? You can't be serious.

Must read, obviously.