After an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the Vikings’ first-round draft picks on Thursday night, the rest of NFL Draft Weekend turned into a bit of a snoozer for most Vikings fans, and Saturday’s somewhat controversial selections seem to have drawn a fair amount of angst amongst the Purple Faithful. In particular, the selection of Georgia kicker Blair Walsh in Round 6 has seemingly caused the most outrage amongst Vikings fans and detractors alike.
In the end, I fall on the side of the naysayers on this one, but I’ll get to that in a bit. First, there actually are several arguments in favor of the move.
To start with, incumbent kicker Ryan Longwell is 37 years old (he’ll be 38 by the time the season starts) He missed six of his 28 field goal attempts in 2011, and missed five of his 13 attempts from beyond 40 yards. He’s also still owed $7 million over the next three seasons, with a cap hit of another $2.6 million on top of his base salary. From a pure business standpoint, it makes little sense to pay a 38-year-old kicker with obvious limitations coming off one of the worst seasons of his impressive career $7 million when a rookie would cost a tiny fraction of that cost. The $2.6 million cap hit (Longwell’s $3.5 million signing bonus, spread evenly across the life of his 4-year deal) would be a tough pill to swallow, but continuing to pay Longwell through his age 41 season might be throwing good money after bad. Even if Walsh misses a bunch of field goal attempts (he made just 74 percent of his kicks in college), would it really matter in 2012? Are the re-building Vikings just a couple of field goals away from the playoffs next year? Is paying a kicker who may be past his prime like one of the best in the league really a good allocation of Zygi Wilf’s money?
There’s also a case to be made that jettisoning the weak-legged Longwell in favor of the stronger Walsh is also a savvy move from a pure football standpoint as well.
Longwell’s major limitation is his inability to produce touchbacks on kickoffs. In 2011, he ranked 28th in the NFL with just 19 kickoffs, and he ranked 34th by forcing touchbacks on just 24.7 percent of his kicks (in part because of this, the Vikings ranked 31st in the NFL in average opponent starting position, according to Football Outsiders' drive stats. Vikings opponents started the average drive at the 31-yard line, while the 49ers defense/special teams led the NFL by forcing opponents to start each drive, on average, at their own 24-yard line).
That might not seem very important, but according to people who are a lot smarter than me, it is. According to an article on a website called Advanced NFL Stats, touchbacks are a lot more valuable than you might imagine. The article is from 2009 and is therefore somewhat outdated, but the findings remain valid today. You can see all the nerdy details here if you’d like, but the highlights of the research done by Brian Burke at Advanced NFL Stats are these:
Using a concept called Expected Points, Burke concludes that a touchback is worth the rough equivalent of half a sack (to drastically oversimplify things, this means that forcing a team to start out at their own 20-yard line twice in a game has roughly the same negative effect on the expected points that team’s offense will score as does sacking the quarterback once).
- The average field position for non-touchback kickoffs is the 32-yard line. Therefore, each touchback saves 12 yards of field position, which results in the opposing offense having to attain one more first down than they would have otherwise in order to get into scoring position. According to Burke, “the average first down conversion rate in the NFL is 67%, so a touchback turns a TD drive into a FG drive or a FG drive into a punt 33% of the time.”
- For the sake of argument, let’s assume Walsh makes the team as a kickoff specialist, or just beats Longwell out for all of the place-kicking duties, and is able to boot 33 touchbacks in 2012, which was the league average for the top 32 kickers in 2011. According to Advanced NFL Stats’ Expected Points, Walsh’s addition, purely in terms of field position and allowing fewer points, would be the equivalent of the Vikings having added a defensive player who produces 6.5 sacks this season. And when you consider that the top 10 kickers in 2011 all booted at least 40 touchbacks, Walsh’s impact could be even greater if his leg proves significantly stronger than Longwell’s.
It’s a fancy way of saying what should be obvious – starting field position does matter in the NFL, and the ability of a kicker to produce touchbacks and prevent long kickoff returns is a factor in winning and losing games.
Of course, this is an argument that really only works for winning teams. Or, at least for teams that aren’t in full-scale rebuilding mode. Carrying that extra kickoff specialist in an effort to gain 50 percent more touchbacks makes sense for a playoff team looking for every little edge. On a deep roster filled with above-average NFL players, eating a roster spot on a kickoff specialist is probably more valuable than carrying that ninth offensive lineman, seventh cornerback, or sixth wide receiver. But, realistically, the Vikings aren’t a playoff team, and shouldn’t be making decisions like one, and the reality is that spending an asset – even if just a sixth-round draft pick – on a kicker just isn’t worth it.
Over the last 10 years, only 23 placekickers have been selected in the NFL Draft. Only a handful of those 23 have gone on to make a significant impact in the NFL (the short list of high-impact kickers who were actually drafted includes Mason Crosby, Nate Kaeding, Stephen Gostkowski, Josh Scobee, Josh Brown, and Mike Nugent). Overall, just 10 of the 23 kickers drafted over the past 10 years were still on an NFL roster in 2011.
That’s a pretty bleak success rate. When you consider that a kicker has to be viewed as the absolute best of the best in college to be drafted at all, the fact that over 50 percent of them fail miserably is not exactly a ringing endorsement for spending a pick on a kicker.
And that’s essentially what it comes down to. The Vikings need players all over the field, and passing up the opportunity to draft a developmental player at any number of positions in favor of selecting a kicker that is more likely to fizzle than make any kind of meaningful impact wasn’t the wisest use of their assets.