An annual article series covering the best NFL kickers
They’re far from the most beloved players in football.
I HATE KICKERS
— Cris Carter (@criscarter80) September 19, 2021
McKenzie Milton would’ve been an all-time great college football story tonight … if his kicker hadn’t missed a pretty easy FG. Notre Dame’s kicker made his. I hate field-goal kicking, which decides WAY TOO MANY GREAT GAMES FOUGHT TO THE END BY REAL FOOTBALL PLAYERS.
— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) September 6, 2021
The Vikings should be proposing a rule to eliminate kicking from the game every offseason until it passes.
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) September 19, 2021
However, they’re among the most important. In close games, a surefire kicker is the difference between winning and losing. I don’t think I have to explain that much, after Ravens kicker Justin Tucker sent a 66-yard field goal through the uprights (after bouncing off the crossbar) at Ford Field for a game-winner.
DID THAT JUST HAPPEN?!?!
— NFL (@NFL) September 26, 2021
And with impeccable timing on Tucker’s end, it’s time to unveil my fourth rendition of The Kicking Crown.
First, this article will only contain data prior to the beginning of the 2021 season. It is typically published during the preseason. In a (failed) attempt to gain interviews with some players and coaches, I put it off and now we’re nearing Week 4. Some things have changed in the data slightly as field goals have been calculated since then but it’s not so dated that it’s irrelevant.
To begin, the overall accuracy standings.
For the fifth-straight year, and sixth time in his seven eligible years, Justin Tucker is No. 1 in all-time field goal accuracy. The only time he ended a season not in first was 2015, and he was No. 2 behind Dan Bailey.
Speaking of Bailey, he’s suffered a most unfortunate tumble in the rankings. He ended 2020 outside of the top 10.
The new man challenging Tucker for the throne is Kansas City Chiefs’ Harrison Butker, who has done an excellent job through the first four years of his career.
The most notable jump is Seattle Seahawks’ Jason Myers, who vaulted into the top 10 after being ranked No. 21 a year prior. No kicker other than Myers gained a full percentage point to their career total, while Myers improved by 2.312%. The reason for such an improvement: Going 24-for-24 in 2020.
Every attempt charted from the following kickers.
- Justin Tucker
- Harrison Butker
- Josh Lambo
- Chris Boswell
- Wil Lutz
- Robbie Gould
- Mike Vanderjagt
- Kai Forbath
- Stephen Gostkowski
- Jason Myers
- Dan Bailey — Rank
- Adam Vinatieri — Rank
- Greg Zuerlein
Reason For Players Above
The top 10 is used to show not only how good you must be to place in history’s top 10 kickers, but also the stark difference between being in first place and being in tenth.
Bailey’s inclusion is due to both already having his career stats available from prior work, and also to show how fickle place-kicking can be. At one point, Bailey was the only kicker in the 90% club. Now, he finds himself outside of the top 10.
Vinatieri is included due to his status. He played 24 seasons in his career and his stats are somewhat a baseline for success.
Zuerlein’s inclusion is due to his usage as a distance kicker. He’s one of the few players in the NFL who matches/exceeds Tucker in distance kicking volume.
- Average Attempted Distance (AAD): This shows where each kicker is attempting from. From their first kick to their most recent, where do they usually line up their kicks the most.
- Average Completion Distance (ACD): This shows where each kicker is completing from. Yes, players may line up from great distances, but where, on average, are they good from.
- Average Miss Distance w/o blocks (AMD): I dislike blocks impacting career accuracy. Being penalized for bad blocking or failed holds isn’t on the kicker. Yes, some of them are blocked due to being too low, but I’m removing all blocked kicks from average miss distance.
- Distance Accuracy Breakdown — Are there statistical anomalies in any kickers’ accuracy? If so, where and why?
- Attempts Breakdown — Are there statistical anomalies in any kickers’ attempts? Are they kicking from great distances or shorter range?
- Zuerlein is still being called on to blast them from great distances. It’s mildly concerning that his average increased from last years (0.2), as he’s not the most accurate from great distances. More on that later. . .
- Myers’ climb into the top 10 accuracy ranking wasn’t on soft and easy kicks: 15-of-24 field goals came from between 40-yards and beyond. It’s one thing to kick a plethora of field goals inside the 30-yard line. It’s another to go 15-for-15 from beyond the 40-yard line, including a 61-yarder.
- Tucker still being the most accurate kicker in NFL history and doing so from an average attempt distance of 39-yards is truly impressive.
- Back in 2013, Mike Vanderjagt was the most accurate kicker in NFL history. His career average attempted distance was from 35.8 yards. The lowest among all names listed. Shows how far kicking has developed in the past two decades.
- Butker gets knocked in this category. While it’s not his fault the Chiefs’ offense constantly gets within better range, it does show he’s benefitting in his accuracy from shorter distance on average than Tucker. However, his average has gone up from 36.1 yards last year, so he’s being utilized more from further range and still hitting. Last year, I said pay attention to his distance kicks and Butker went 3-of-5 from 40-49 yards and was a perfect 4-for-4 on 50+ yard kicks. So, he’s gaining ground in this area.
- Myers’ 2020 season was one for the books. An outstanding series of kicks has him now atop the career average completion distance field.
- Tucker and Zuerlein both average the same completion distance. But one of them is the most accurate kicker in NFL history while the other is outside of the top 40. The most stark contrast in the data thus far.
- The improvements of place kicking once again on display with Vanderjagt placing last in this category, and just behind Vinatieri.
- Surprising to see Butker’s ACD go down from last years (-0.2). It could just be a miss impacting his data, as his sample size is smaller than others.
- Gould’s ACD falls from last years by 0.1, which isn’t a lot, but it is significant due to his sample size being large.
- Here’s Tucker’s time to shine. Tucker so infrequently misses a field goal under 50-yards that his career average miss distance is nearly two yards above 50. No other kicker, not even Myers or Zuerlein, averages above a 50-yard career miss distance, while he surpasses the standard. Hence why everybody is stunned when he misses a 49-yard field goal.
Justin Tucker just missed a field goal. pic.twitter.com/o77lgm7MCN
— trey wingo (@wingoz) September 26, 2021
- I’m surprised to see Vanderjagt not at the bottom of a category. He’s been down at the bottom for other categories just due to the improvements of kicking but he’s still outpacing Bould, Boswell, Gostkowski and Vinatieri in this category. Which, I think kind of looks bad on the others.
- Lambo appears to be great at anything under 40-yards. His career average kicks are from around 38 yards and his average completion is only a yard fewer (37). But once you take it back 10 yards, it gets a bit out of his range.
- Forbath has just been consistently cruising in all categories. I apologize for my lack of mentioning him but he’s neither a protagonist or main character in this feature. However, he’s a significant member of the show with consistent production and a top 10 kicker.
- Lutz being a part of this list is always wild to me. The Ravens couldn’t hang onto him, a top five kicker all time, because they’re already rostering the No. 1 kicker.
- History showing itself here. Vanderjagt and Vinatieri lead with the most attempts inside of 30 yards. Gostkowski not far behind, either.
- Unfortuntaely, Greg Zuerlein is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He and Myers are the only two who are below 20% of their career attempts inside the 30.
- Lambo’s bulk of work falls within this mark. The average for this group is 29.89% and Lambo is far above it.
- On the other end of the spectrum is Lutz, who is getting little work in this range. Looks like his team is opting to go for it or punt in this range, as opposed to field goal kicking. That, or they have a “sweet spot” at this range for getting the ball further downfield. It’s interesting and I’m curious if anyone knowledgeable on the Saints can answer why Lutz isn’t used in this range.
- Of the kickers listed, no kicker has had an easier time than Gostkowski. Over 60% of his career kicks came under 40 yards. Now, it’s pretty obvious why he benefitted. For nearly his entire career, he played during the Brady-Belichick era for the New England Patriots. As I said with Butker previously, it’s not his fault and he made the most of his kicks, but to not recognize he attempted from easier ranges than any other person on this list is notable.
- Close behind Gostkowski is Vinatieri (played with the Manning-Colts and Brady-Patriots). Behind those two is Butker (Mahomes-Chiefs). Can’t fault the kickers but worth noting.
- Myers may have a small sample size but only he and Lutz find themselves with fewer kicks under 40-yards than above. Impressive.
- Tucker is one of the lesser-benefitted kickers in this regard. He’s kicking just over half his kicks from under 40.
- No team likes to utilize their “mid-range weapon” than the Steelers with Boswell. More than two-thirds of Boswell’s career attempts are between 30-49-yards, and we’ll get to his accuracy in the graph following.
- Jeff Fisher sure loved to trot out Zuerlein for some long-range attempts. Zuerlein kicked over one-fifth of his career attempts from 50+ yards.
- Pushing Tucker down to third place is Myers, who I’ve gushed about maybe too much. If he can keep up the accuracy, he’ll be well talked about in the years to come.
- Wild to consider Tucker is sending these 50+ yard kicks third-most in the NFL and hanging onto the top spot in terms of career field goal accuracy.
- What Boswell does in the mid-range is taken out of his 50+ yard attempts. He falls below Vanderjagt (8.47%), with only 7.23% of his career attempts going from 50+. Some of that is likely due to kicking in the AFC North, with half his games at Heinz Field. I don’t knock Boswell here. He and his team know his range and they utilize him to the best of their ability.
- Not easy to be asked on more than half your career attempts to boot the pigskin from 40+, but Lutz and Myers are the two in that area.
- Tucker follows behind at 48.6%. What I’m impressed with is Tucker’s average hasn’t plummeted down. At the 2018 season conclusion, Tucker’s 40+ attempts breakdown was at 49.4%. Years later and Tucker’s usage is holding true.
- Be it something mental or physical, Bailey being the former most accurate kicker to having missed three kicks inside the 30 is rough. I understand mistakes happen but not for the most accurate. All of the top four kickers in terms of accuracy are perfect inside 30 yards. It may not seem that significant but if Bailey hits all three of those misses, he goes up to 86.897% accuracy. He’d not only be back in the top 10, he’d place No. 5 in all-time accuracy. These margins are razor thin.
- Along the same lines, Lutz was 100% until last year. That could be the difference between he or Boswell being No. 4 in all-time accuracy.
- Just as I said, the top four most accurate kickers in the NFL right now are perfect inside the 30-yard line. It’s critical you complete your easier kicks.
- Lambo was first in this category last year and repeats this season. Honestly, if Lambo hadn’t performed poorly in his first two years in the league with San Diego, he’d be the most accurate kicker in the NFL and it wouldn’t be close (95.0%!). However, if you take out other kickers’ bad years, they’d be better, too. Just strange to see him go from back-to-back years of 81.3% to averaging 95% completion the next four years following.
- Wild that Bailey’s accuracy from 30-39 is within the same tenth of a percentage.
- Boswell’s struggles in this range are pretty peculiar. Would need some Steelers input as to why he’s all the way down to 90% in this range.
- Tucker’s the man to beat in this range. He’s the only one above 90% and this is the range where things get hectic. All the way at the bottom is Gostkowski with 75.4% accuracy. That’s a 15% difference from first place to last in this measurement.
- Butker being No. 4 is a testament that even though he’s not given as many opportunities from long range, he’s sinking them.
- This part is where knowing sample size is important, and why I do this chart last. Boswell is 75% from deep. And while that’s an impressive feat, he’s kicked only 12 field goals from 50+, and made nine. Great percentage but the context is necessary.
- Lambo’s accuracy is sharp as he went 12-of-13 from 50-yards between 2017-2020. Prior to that, he went 4-of-8 in San Diego, which hurts his numbers.
- Though Tucker is known for his accuracy from deep (especially after their Week 3 game against Detroit), it’s Gostkowski who is more accurate from deep.
- Zuerlein is the guy when it comes to distance kickin, yet he’s the least-accurate kicker on the board from this range. That said, he also has more volume here than any other kicker.
When I first began this series, Tucker was far ahead of the pack. He was placing first in almost every category and it was silly. While he’s still a notch above the rest, it appears the younger generation, specifically Butker, have made some developments to improve. There’s still arguments to be made that Tucker’s greatness isn’t fully realized, seeing as he’s doing most of his work from longer ranges than others and keeping up with some of the highest volumes at further ranges, but there’s been some catching up on their end.
Butker, though it sounds a bit like I’ve diminished his ability in this piece, is by far the second-best kicker in the NFL. You don’t stumble into being the second of only two players in the 90% career accuracy club. He’s on the verge of eclipsing Tucker for most accurate kicker and it’ll be interesting to watch his career unfold.
After Lambo missed most of last season, it’s good to see him back on the field in 2021. He’ll be a good competitor as things move forward for the top spot.
Boswell had a poor 2018 season and there was a lot of frustration with Steelers fans and worry of him fading after signing his contract. But rather than cutting him and looking elsewhere, the Steelers kept him and he’s averaged over 94% accuracy the past two years. Good on Boswell and the Steelers for getting right and staying competitive.
Lutz is missing the 2021 season due to a core muscle injury. It’s disappointing a top five kicker won’t be on the field this year, at least for awhile.
At 39, Gould is still out there booting balls through the uprights. He might be able to break back into the top five, especially with Lutz missing this season.
Vanderjagt was one of the most accurate kickers in history. Prior to the new wave of kickers, he was the most accurate kicker in NFL history. Before Tucker, Butker, Bailey and others, he was the No. 1 guy. The game has developed into something we see now.
The days of Ghost closing out games for the Patriots is over, and it sucks, honestly. I loved watching Gostkowski kick. Don’t blame him for hanging it up after winning three rings and all, but I enjoyed his play.
I know I won’t convince anybody to watch a game strictly for a kicker, but Myers may be the one guy I’d advise to outside of Tucker. He came on like a storm last year and jumped from No. 21 to No. 10. If he can keep it up, especially at his splits, he’ll be contesting with Tucker for status.