Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

25 Dec 2009

Under the Cap: Top Ten Kickers and Punters

by J.I. Halsell

This week we wrap up our season-long look at the top ten starter contracts at each position. Hopefully this analysis has given you some insight into how the elite players at each position compare to one another. One of the things that has stood out to me is the value of top-five draft pick contracts. Those contracts often place a player's compensation in the top ten, if not top five, at his position. Also standing out are the landmark contracts of Washington’s Albert Haynesworth, Dallas' DeMarcus Ware, the 2004 Quarterback class (Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, New York's Eli Manning, and San Diego's Philip Rivers) and Oakland's Nnamdi Asomugha.

Speaking of the Oakland Raiders, Asomugha wasn't the only Raider to secure a contract that put him head and shoulders above his peers. The mega-football agency CAA (led by Tom Condon and Ben Dogra) must love the Raiders, as they negotiated lucrative contracts for both Asomugha and Raider punter Shane Lechler. Through 15 weeks of the 2009 season, Lechler’s gross punting average of 51.5 yards has received the most media attention, but as Redskins special teams coach Danny Smith emphasized to me in my time in Washington, net punting average is the more critical statistic. Through 15 weeks, Lechler's net punting average is an amazing 44.2 yards. Since 1976, the highest net punting average in a season is 41.2 yards, accomplished by Lechler in 2008. Lechler is on pace to shatter that record, which perhaps justifies the contract he received this past offseason.

As the table below illustrates, Lechler's new, four-year contract guarantees him $9 million, for an average guarantee per year of $2.3 million. While other top-tier specialists on multi-year contracts receive guarantees per year in the neighborhood of $600,000 to $800,000, Lechler nearly tripled the high end of that range with his $2.3 million value. Over three years, Lechler's $12.2 million value roughly equals what other top-tier specialists will make over the total term of their contracts. Where no other top-tier specialist exceeds a guarantee of 32 percent, Lechler's contract guarantees 56.3 percentage of the total value. All in all, the Lechler contract, much like the Asomugha contract, represents a great contract for the player.

The table below also illustrates that the kicker market is more lucrative than the punter market, as Lechler and Atlanta’s Michael Koenen (playing on a franchise tender) are the only punters with contracts in the top ten. Tennessee’s Rob Bironas went from kicking in the Arena League to becoming the league’s highest-paid kicker, with an average per year of $3 million.

Although they may not be in the same class as Lechler, St. Louis' Donnie Jones and San Francisco’s Andy Lee are also elite punters. Since 1976 and through week 15 of 2009, Lechler, Jones, and Lee hold seven of the eight highest net averages in a season. So far in 2009, Jones' net average is 41.3 yards, while Lee’s net average is 41.5 yards (it should also be noted that Arizona’s Ben Graham has a net average in 2009 of 41.4 yards). However, while Lechler received a contract averaging $4 million per year with $9 million guaranteed, Lee and Jones are playing under 2007 contracts that are paying them $1.2 million and $1.1 million per year, respectively, and that guaranteed them $1.7 million and $1.2 million. This is a bargain when compared to Lechler.

Here are the top ten specialist contracts in the league:

Top Ten Starting Specialist Contracts (in millions of dollars)
Rank Player Club Age at
Signing
Signing
Date
New
Years
Guarantee Guar./
Year
Guar.
Pct
Total
New Money
Avg./
Year
3-Year
Total
1 Lechler, Shane OAK 32 2/19/2009 4 $9.0m $2.3m 56.3% $16.0m $4.0m $12.2m
2 Bironas, Rob TEN 31 2/19/2009 4 $3.3m $0.8m 27.5% $12.0m $3.0m $9.2m
3 Brown, Josh STL 28 3/1/2008 5 $4.0m $0.8m 28.2% $14.2m $2.8m $8.8m
4 Gould, Robbie CHI 25 5/12/2008 5 $4.0m $0.8m 29.6% $13.5m $2.7m $8.9m
5 Hanson, Jason DET 38 2/17/2009 4 $2.7m $0.7m 25.5% $10.6m $2.7m $8.1m
6 Brown, Kris HOU 32 6/18/2009 4 $2.6m $0.6m 24.9% $10.3m $2.6m $8.3m
7 Graham, Shayne CIN 31 4/30/2009 1 $2.5m $2.5m 100.0% $2.5m $2.5m --
8 Koenen, Michael ATL 26 2/17/2009 1 $2.5m $2.5m 100.0% $2.5m $2.5m --
9 Vinatieri, Adam IND 33 3/23/2006 5 $3.5m $0.7m 29.2% $12.0m $2.4m $7.5m
10 Akers, David PHI 30 11/7/2005 3 $2.3m $0.8m 32.4% $7.1m $2.4m $5.9m

Follow J.I. Halsell on Twitter: @SalaryCap101

Posted by: J.I. Halsell on 25 Dec 2009

27 comments, Last at 28 Dec 2009, 4:41pm by J.I. Halsell

Comments

1
by tuluse :: Sat, 12/26/2009 - 12:36pm

I'm OK with Gould on this list. He doesn't have the strongest leg, but he kicks accurately at Soldier Field, which is very hard to do. Also, I think he gets good hang time, which contributes to the Bears being awesome at kick coverage every year.

Can anyone explain Vinateri's contract to me though? I mean Bill Polian has signed about 3 free agents total in Indy, and one of them is a 5 year deal for a 33 year old kicker, who never had great leg strength to begin with?

2
by Temo :: Sat, 12/26/2009 - 1:06pm

Call it the Mike Vanderjagt effect.

3
by Johnny Socko (not verified) :: Sat, 12/26/2009 - 2:57pm

Because how many Super Bowls have the Patriots won without Vinateri? Obviously this is just a joke, but...FWIW I think Polian does attribute some leadership qualities to Vinateri. Not sure I believe a kicker can actually be a leader, but more importantly I think Polian believes it.

5
by Disraeli :: Sat, 12/26/2009 - 3:16pm

I'd say they can, in a way. If everyone else on your special teams unit has absolute faith in the reliability of the kicker and the punter, they'll play to that standard. As I've said before, consistency and routine is key to good kicking. Your holder not being certain that the kicker will nail that last minute 53-yarder is a variable that you want to eliminate.

26
by Will :: Mon, 12/28/2009 - 4:22pm

I agree with Gould - he's been a very good kicker in a very difficult place to kick.

Will

4
by Gus (not verified) :: Sat, 12/26/2009 - 3:13pm

Well, I'd say the Vinatieri contract had to do with the Colts looking at the several years he was one of most accurate kickers in the league for the Pats, and then--wrongly, of course--they added on his "clutch" performances and figured they were paying for one of the best kickers in the league.

I'm pretty sure that kickoff distance is still underrated in some circles, and that might also help account for their mistake.

6
by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sat, 12/26/2009 - 3:31pm

It doesn't seem so crazy to me that you'd pay all that money for Vinatieri if he's accurate. You look at a team like the Cowboys who've gone from kicker to kicker, or the 49ers who went through 10 kickers from 1995-2005 before settling on Nedney.

A five year contract takes him to 38. Consider that Morten Andersen played at 47, John Carney and Gary Andersen played at 45, John Kasay turned 40 in October.

You get your punter to do the kickoffs and being a dome team that plays 3/4 of its season in its own dome, in Tennessee, in Houston's dome and Jacksonville really doesn't seem such a downside. You just need to be sure you get homefield advantage through the playoffs.

7
by CaffeineMan :: Sat, 12/26/2009 - 3:36pm

Yeah, at the time Vinatieri signed, as I recall, he was still dead on balls accurate. However, he was losing range. Still, the Pats were willing to make him the highest paid kicker in the league, just not as highly paid as the Colts were willing to make him. I don't think the Colts thought they were paying for clutch, I think they just valued accuracy over range, which includes kickoff range.

8
by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sat, 12/26/2009 - 3:40pm

I believe one of the reasons why Matt Stover is such an accurate kicker is that he knows his limitations. Before the game he looks at the conditions and then tells the coach what yardage lines he can make field goals from at either end of the stadium.

If he tells the coach it's the 45-yd line; the coach isn't going to try and get him to attempt a 54-yard kick from the 47. They're going to have to make a decision between going for it on 4th down and punting.

9
by CaffeineMan :: Sat, 12/26/2009 - 3:51pm

I've read that the Pats do the same thing. Belichick, the ST coach, and the kicker get together before each half and decide what the limit will be, given the kicker's health and weather conditions. By '05, that line had moved in for Vinatieri, who never had a booming leg anyway. Indy was the perfect destination for him, between the money, the dome, and the stronger emphasis on short-range FG accuracy.

10
by Big Johnson (not verified) :: Sat, 12/26/2009 - 5:26pm

neither scifres or kaeding are in the top 10? Scifres singlefootedly beat the colts in the playoffs last year and Kaeding is the most accurate kicker in nfl history. Its sad that Kaeding is more accurate than Vinatieri even while vinatieri only kicks 30 yard field goals and closer. His stats arent good even with training wheels on them.

why is net punt the most important stat for a punter? Punter A kicks from the 20 yard line and nets a gain of 45 yards. Pretty solid punt. Punter B kicks from the 50 and nets a gain of 40 yards. Another solid punt. Which punt was better? Since 51.5 gross punt would kick it into the endzone and get a touchback, there are more things to worry about greatly increasing the difficulty of the punt. I would say punt B is the better punt given the circumstances. And since the raiders never even get to the 50 it is no surprise that lechler has such an easy time punting the ball. Only the raiders are dumb enough to pay a punter top dollar.

12
by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sat, 12/26/2009 - 6:00pm

Wow! You seem really angry that Scifres and Kaeding aren't among the best paid top 10. Perhaps you should ask AJ Smith to give them a raise? Actually I'm guessing that Kaeding is due a new contract any time soon.

As for your example ... you demonstrate perfectly why net is most important. The punter who kicks it for 55yds gross for a touchback gets a net of just 35 yds.

For sure the guys getting to punt from nearer their own 20 are getting a better chance at net, but Lechler is way above anything that's gone before. Donnie Jones (Rams), Andy Lee (49ers) are hardly playing for offensive powerhouses and they're almost 3yds per kick behind him.

Really it's a shame that NFL.com stats don't break the situational stats down a bit further than own 1-20, own 21-50, opp 49-20.

15
by justanothersteve :: Sat, 12/26/2009 - 11:52pm

I'm also surprised Brian Moorman isn't up there. The guy not only kicks great, but does so in Buffalo - arguably one of the worst two or three places in the league to kick. I don't know if his contract is coming up soon, but I'd love the Packers to go after him. Even if they have to pay him a record contract. The Pack haven't had a decent punter since Heinrich left for Tennessee after SB XXXI.

11
by Q (not verified) :: Sat, 12/26/2009 - 5:31pm

This illustates how grossly underpaid puntes are. For all the talk about how important field position is, the salaries sur do not reflect it. I wish GB would have paid some real punter good money instead of giving it to some crappy 4th string lineman

24
by Bowl Game Anomaly :: Mon, 12/28/2009 - 12:42pm

It's not that punters aren't important. The issue is that the best punters are not that much better than average ones, and there are a lot of guys who can do the job adequately. Why pay Shane Lechler 9 mil guaranteed when you can sign any random free agent, get 80-90% of the production, and pay 10% of the price?

OTOH, you could argue that kickers are overpaid relative to punters, especially since they are paid for accuracy (which is highly variable year to year) and not for kickoff distance (which is consistent).

13
by FooBarFooFoo (not verified) :: Sat, 12/26/2009 - 8:01pm

Sorry, but why do punters on bad teams end up leading the league in net punt average? Looks pretty obvious that it is simply easier to pimp your numbers in a team that often punts and often punts from bad field position where you can just boom it.

What are the numbers regarding pinning opponents deep inside their territory? Inside the 10 or inside the 20? Even if the "inside 10 or inside 5" has some luck and performance by other ST players involved, it will still be way superior than net average.

14
by J.I. Halsell :: Sat, 12/26/2009 - 8:44pm

"Inside the 20" is definitely an important statistic, but it could also be argued that net average is a function of BOTH good punting AND good coverage. So you could be a bad team on offense & defense, but if you're punter has a good net average it means that he's not only punting well but those going down on coverage are doing a great job of tackling & not letting the returner advance the ball and thereby lower the net.

J.I. Halsell
Salary Cap Analyst | "Under the Cap"
Twitter | @SalaryCap101

16
by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sun, 12/27/2009 - 7:46am

The argument for "inside the 10" seems as biased as your concerns about net average. A punter on a really bad offense is rarely going to drop the ball in there if he's always punting from his own 20 ...

Over the past few years I've watched some really good punters ... Scifres and Feagles at Wembley; Lechler and Moorman on the TV. They're all really good in their own way.

Lechler has all the skills that Scifres has at dropping the ball on the goal-line, Scifres has great hangtime and distance like Lechler. Moorman would have numbers like Lechler and Scifres if he wasn't kicking in the northeast.

Feagles is a wonderful directional kicker. He goes for the sidelines because he knows that's unreturnable. He's nowhere near as strong-legged as the new guys but at 45-years-old he's still close to where he was twenty years ago. Last year was statistically the best year of his career!

17
by Hurt Bones :: Sun, 12/27/2009 - 10:29am

I am a fan of Sam Koch. I hate to single him out, but he sends me. Plus every time he steps on the field, I know a change [of possession] is going to come.

19
by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sun, 12/27/2009 - 2:53pm

Just watching Raiders-Cleveland game ... end of 1st quarter ... ball on Cleveland 48 ... Lechler punts 42yds to the Cleveland 6 ... Cribbs returns it 3 yards. Not good for his net, but he has all the types of kick in there.

3&out later ... Cleveland's Hodges punts from his own 8 yard line ... 37 yards to Cleveland 45. Fair caught. 3 yards of field position gained by Lechler's original punt. (I'm ignoring the 15-yard penalty on Cleveland for hitting the returner who signalled fair catch which actually meant the Raiders started at the 30!).

21
by Jerry :: Mon, 12/28/2009 - 3:27am

And when he retires, he can work on the chain gang.

22
by Hurt Bones :: Mon, 12/28/2009 - 11:00am

I only wish his jersey number was 16 instead of 4.

18
by El Miriodor :: Sun, 12/27/2009 - 1:19pm

I feel contractually obligated to say "Well of course Shane Lechler has to be paid well, if he wasn't the best then all of the Raiders washed out speedster wide receivers on special teams would outrun their kick coverage."

20
by Anonymous* (not verified) :: Sun, 12/27/2009 - 9:52pm

Good to see Lechler top this list. I did an analysis of the top punters in history last year when were arguing about Ray Guy, and Lechler was like 3rd overall by one metric (and since he's an active player, that means potential to rank #1).

23
by C (not verified) :: Mon, 12/28/2009 - 11:44am

It is hard to evaluate punters due to the nature of the position. Are you at your own 10 and booming a punt or are you at the opponents 40 and trying to pin them deep? Yes, splits would be benefical to look at.

Kicking is hard too. Kicking on grass, in cold etc. is harder than kicking in say the super dome.

I think kickoffs are highly underrated. I have no problem with a team having a kick off specialist because they usually give the team more benefit than the 8th linebacker or 10th lineman or 7th receiver etc. that would have been on the roster. Especially if your team will score points/give up points and he'll get a lot of kicks per game.

25
by capt. Anonymous (not verified) :: Mon, 12/28/2009 - 3:34pm

JJ,
I was hoping you could answer a question for me. How do NFL players get paid if they are on IR or are inactive or are injured?

27
by J.I. Halsell :: Mon, 12/28/2009 - 4:41pm

This is a topic i cover in my Salary Cap 101 webinar (i'd be doing myself a disservice if I didn't mention that the next webinar is Sat., 1/23/10 @ 1pm ET, more info: www.SalaryCap101.com), but the long & short of it is that players are paid their salary regardless if they're on IR or inactive for a game. However if their contract has what is called a "split" salary, their salary is then modified based upon whether they're on the 53-man roster or if they are on a reserve list.

J.I. Halsell
Salary Cap Analyst | "Under the Cap"
Twitter | @SalaryCap101