How does a kicker attached to an offense that averaged the fifth most yards per game and the most points per game attempt a grand total of 16 field goals?
It’s a question that has haunted me for weeks, disturbing my slumber, rudely interrupting my daydreams, mocking my religiously held belief that fantasy managers should roster kickers on good offenses that create a steady stream of neutral and positive game script.
I take no pleasure in reporting the following: Mason Crosby averaged a single field goal attempt per game in 2020 on a blisteringly good Green Bay offense. No team attempted fewer field goals than the Packers last season. The Jaguars, who were continuously drubbed in 2020, attempted nine more field goals than the Packers. Crosby’s 2020 campaign was infuriating for fantasy players who systematically seek out kickers whose teams are heavy favorites with high implied totals. The Packers, as you may remember, often fit that description in 2020.
Not to be hyperbolic, but Crosby’s dearth of opportunity last year was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.
But Crosby’s fantasy uselessness -- he finished as the game’s 17th highest scoring kicker thanks to a league-leading 59 extra points -- presents a vital lesson we can carry into the 2021 season: coaches’ red zone and fourth down aggressiveness can have an outsized impact on kicker opportunity.
I touted Crosby in my weekly kicker streaming column a few times in 2020, failing to recognize just how aggressive Matt LaFluer was being inside the 33 yard line (making for a 50-yard field goal try). No coach was more aggressive on fourth down inside the 33 in neutral game script. In fact, no one was close.
FG attempt %
inside the 33
Field goal attempts
inside the 33
Above are the teams that ended the season among the top half of the NFL in fourth down aggressiveness in what we’ll call normal field goal range. By the time we reach the bottom, we’re staring at a Raiders Offense absolutely smitten to give Daniel Carlson a crack at three points once they’ve breached the 33 yard line. Hence, Carlson ends up with the sixth most field goal tries and racks up more fantasy points than all but two kickers.
Even a quick glance at these numbers shows that if Green Bay had a somewhat normalized field goal attempt percentage inside the 33, Crosby would have likely been among the top two or three kickers in fantasy. But when you have Aaron Rodgers torching defenses in an MVP season, you’re less willing to settle for three points when you have less than a handful of yards to gain for a first down and a chance for six.
It might not come as a shock that Green Bay led the league by scoring a touchdown on 76.8 percent of their red zone possessions. In LaFluer’s first year at the helm, the Packers were second in touchdown scoring inside the red zone. Long story much shorter: LaFleur understands Rodgers has a nose for the end zone paint, to the detriment of his kicker.
Tyler Bass was the fourth highest scoring kicker in fantasy last season while his team was relatively aggressive on fourth downs inside the 33 yard line. Buffalo’s push for touchdowns made sense: they posted the best fourth down conversion rate (80 percent) in the league, tied with Miami. Importantly, Bass finished about four field goal attempts under expectation in 2020. He was hardly lucky in his breakout season. We’ll explore that further in a future article packed with overwrought kicker analysis.
Below is a look at the teams most likely to kick a field goal on fourth down inside the opponent’s 33 yard line in neutral game script (thanks to fellow fantasy head Eric “Fresh Prince Of” Belair for this data).
FG attempt %
inside the 33
Field goal attempts
inside the 33
We may have gotten to the bottom of Justin Tuckers’ relatively disastrous 2020 campaign in which he finishes as fantasy’s No. 8 kicker after being the first kicker off the draft board. Tucker, who uncharacteristically scored eight or fewer fantasy points in eight games, had a meager ten field goal tries inside the 33 yard line in neutral situations despite Baltimore choosing field goals at a 100 percent clip. I suppose it could have been worse if head coach John Harbaugh had been more aggressive on fourth downs.
Nothing, by the way, has changed about Tucker: he was money from 40-49 yards out, nailing nine of nine kicks. He made three of his five attempts over 50 yards, proving that he is in fact not a robot sent from the future to ruin the lives of anti-kicker fantasy managers. Tucker has a sparkling 70 percent conversion rate on 60 attempts of more than 50 yards in his ten NFL seasons. I’m willing to go out on a limb and say he will remain valuable for fantasy gamers in 2021.
Tennessee finished with just 27 field goal tries -- seventh fewest in the league -- despite going for three on 81.2 percent of their fourth downs inside the 33 in neutral game script. That’s (mostly) because Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry continued to bludgeon opponents in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on 74.2 percent of their possessions that breached the bad guys’ 20 yard line. Only the Packers were better. Another year of efficient offense -- only three teams logged more yards per play than the Titans in 2020 -- should put whoever kicks for Tennessee in good position next season. That’s assuming they find a slight upgrade over Stephen Washedkowski.
Younghoe Koo is primed to be one of the most overdrafted kickers of this century or any other century following a season in which the laughingstock Falcons time and again settled for field goals in neutral game script. Koo’s 95 percent field goal conversion rate and his 40 attempts -- 4.5 attempts over expectation -- make him subject to the whims of the regression reaper. More on that in another batch of kicker takes.
Mike McCarthy in his first season with Dallas seemed all too happy to settle for field goals inside the 33 yard line. Perhaps it was all the analytics studying he did during his year off. It’s very much noteworthy that Greg Zuerlein -- the boomers call him Legatron -- led the NFL with 41 field goal tries on a wretched team that went 6-10 by winning three of their last four games. Quietly -- quieter than a deceased church mouse, some would say -- Zuerlein was fantasy’s No. 5 kicker in 2020, tied with the much-ballyhooed Rodrigo Blankenship. If Zuerlein, who made three of his nine kicks beyond 50 yards in 2020, had registered his career average from over 50 (56.25 percent), he would have been fantasy’s third highest scoring kicker. That makes me think. Maybe it makes you think too.
That Zuerlein had a middling 2020 field goal conversion rate (82.7 percent) shouldn’t obscure his fantasy potential in a Dak Prescott-led Dallas offense with a head coach who’s fine with field goals inside the 33. Maybe that changes with Prescott under center for a whole season, but McCarthy’s penchant for field goals should be a tidbit we tuck away come August. Zuerlein will surely be a forgotten kicker with top-three upside in 2021.