Thursday, September 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Is Bucs kicker Nick Folk a significant upgrade over Roberto Aguayo?

Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter made it clear.

And he used some Hard Knocks language.

Nick Folk was the team's bleeping kicker.

With that, the Roberto Aguayo saga ended Saturday, less than 16 months after it started. It's Folk's job, at least for now.

On Thursday against the Jaguars ­— his first game post-Aguayo — Folk got off to a shaky start. Jacksonville blocked an extra point, and a 47-yard field goal try late in the game veered wide right.

What can we expect from the 32-year-old kicker come September? Will he better than Aguayo? Worse?

RELATED STORY: Better kickers don't mean more wins, Times analysis shows

The go-to measure of kicker performance is field goal percentage. Folk, who is entering his 11th NFL season, has made 81.3 percent of his attempts, a solid but not great rate. More than a dozen active kickers have higher percentages (minimum 100 attempts).

Considering Aguayo made only 71 percent of his attempts, Folk might seem like a significant upgrade. When you look closely at his career field goal percentage, though, it's a mix of good and bad. He has been as high as 91.7 percent and as low as 64.3 percent. He has been below the league average in six of 10 seasons.

That's not unusual. Field goal percentage is a random statistic. There's no correlation from one season to the next. Even highly regarded kickers like Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski have experienced huge swings.

The Bucs didn't see such a turnaround coming for Aguayo, especially after his missed kicks in the preseason opener. As Koetter said, "We saw what that movie was like last year." But given Folk's up-and-down field goal percentages, how much more comfortable can he feel?

"As I said many times last year, your guys are your guys," he said when I asked him Saturday. "I sank 100 percent of my belief in our guys, and I hope they do the same."

In retrospect, I wish I had asked that question differently. Single-season field goal percentage can be a flawed way of evaluating a kicker. It takes all attempts, regardless of difficulty, and treats them equally. A 50-yard try is the same as a 30-yard try.

What happens when we break down Folk's percentages by distance? The chart below plots his conversion rates over the past decade in 5-yard increments. The blue line is Folk, the red line is the NFL average and the gray lines are other kickers who have attempted kicks in each of the past 10 seasons.

When we look at Folk's rates this way, he tracks closely with NFL averages. You'll see that he dips below average in the 20-29-yard range, which is odd, but if the Bucs are relying this season on Folk to kick a bunch of 25-yard field goals, they're having other issues.

Beyond that, Folk is relatively reliable. Koetter will have tough calls to make on kicks from 45 or more yards, as Folk's accuracy in that territory has slipped in recent seasons. Does he go for the points or the field position? That's a calculation, of course, that involves more variables than the quality of his kicker. How strong is the opponent's offense? How much faith does he have in his defense to make a stop?

"Expected points" is another way to measure kicker performance. Here's how it works: Imagine that every hash mark on the field has a point value, and that value increases as a team moves down the field.

The expected points value of fourth and 10 from a team's own 25-yard line, for example, is -1.7. The value of fourth and 10 from an opponent's 25 is 1.8. A field goal in that situation then would represent a gain of 1.2 points. A miss, and the subsequent turnover on downs, would represent a loss.

Using this method, we can gauge how many points a kicker added or cost his team. If you want the cold, hard numbers, they're in the table below, but here's the takeaway: Most seasons, Folk's performance has been within three points of expectation. Simply put: He has been average.

Net "expected points" value of Nick Folk field goals, 2007-2016

Season Team Net value
2007 Cowboys -3.0
2008 Cowboys 10.2
2009 Cowboys -17.5
2010 Jets -7.7
2011 Jets 0.6
2012 Jets -2.7
2013 Jets 14.7
2014 Jets 3.6
2015 Jets 1.0
2016 Jets -2.5
Note: Because the number of attempts on early downs are random from season to season, we limited this sample to attempts on fourth downs only. Source: Pro Football Reference

As for Aguayo, his performance last season was 16.3 points below expectation. It might have seemed as though he could do nothing right, but on short-range kicks, he actually was adequate. Granted, you'd expect more from a player deemed worthy of a second-round pick, but his record wasn't chuck-your-remote-at-the-television bad. The kicks beyond 40 yards were the ones that did him in. On those, he was 18.2 points below expectation.

What about Folk's long-range kicks? Over his career, his performance on kicks beyond 40 yards has been — you guessed it — average.

Given the volatility at the position in recent seasons, the Bucs will take that. Even so, the best way to solve their kicking problems is to score (and prevent) more touchdowns. That's what matters most.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.

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