By Allen Rodriguez (follow this blog on Twitter)
After Alex Henery’s lackluster 2013 season, it had been assumed the Eagles would open his roster spot up for competition. GM Howie Roseman implied this at the end of the season by responding to a question about the team’s future at the kicker position by saying “I think we need competition at every spot.” (Henery had no competition last year.)
So how did the Eagles settle on Carey Spear?
In monitoring which players the Eagles showed interest in leading up to the draft, at the kicker position, I had only found nuggets on Auburn’s Cody Parkey, Arkansas’ Zach Hocker, Tulane’s Cairo Santos, and Boston College’s Nate Freese. I assumed there were probably more, but it’s practically impossible to hear about every expression of interest, especially at a position like kicker, which isn’t covered as intensely as other positions.
It turns out the player they wound up signing, Vanderbilt’s Carey Spear, had received special interest from the Eagles prior to the draft process. Per teammate Andrew East via Twitter, Spear had a “tryout with the Eagles” on March 17, four days before the Vanderbilt Pro Day.
While Spear couldn’t sign with the Eagles until after the draft, he seemed to already know he would be an Eagle by draft time. When the Eagles came on the clock at pick 22, despite being a Cleveland Browns fan from Ohio according to his Vanderbilt bio, he tweeted the following:
Is he good?
We’ll see. Spear was ranked the #14 kicker prospect in this year’s draft by CBS Sports. He is by no means exceptionally good at field goals or kickoffs in college. He was best known for hits like this:
Yes, that’s Cordarrelle Patterson getting um, speared – the same Cordarrelle Patterson that the Eagles didn’t want Alex Henery kicking to in last year’s Vikings game. Spear presumably earned the nickname “Murderleg” for hits like that.
In 2013, Spear had 3 tackles on 73 Kickoffs. But his best tackling season was 2011 where he had 11 on 64 kickoffs. Henery has never had more than 2 in a season (2011) (average of 85 kickoffs per season). It’s difficult to estimate the value of Spear’s coverage ability, but I would guess it’s not high. A kicker’s true value seems more tied to kicking the ball deep on kickoffs and making field goals. It’s probably not ideal for a kicker to be banging up his body.
Field Goal Kicking
Raw FG% is a pretty weak stat . According to Football Outsiders:
“Field-goal percentage is almost entirely random from season to season, while kickoff distance is one of the most consistent statistics in football.”
“ Measuring every kicker from 1999 to 2006 who had at least ten field goal attempts in each of two consecutive years, the year-to-year correlation coefficient for field-goal percentage was an insignificant .05.”
“On the other hand, the year-to-year correlation coefficient for kickoff distance, over the same period as our measurement of field-goal percentage and with the same minimum of ten kicks per year, is .61.”
That said, here are their stats (click for regular size):
Henery NFL: 51 yards
Henery College: 57 yards
Spear College: 54 yards
Spear High School: 61 yards
Henery generally looks better here. The only area Spear appears potentially superior is from 50+. While 5 is a small sample size, Spear was actually better from 50+ than from 40-49. But overall, Henery has still had more success than Spear from 40+.
The data for kickoffs is possibly even harder to draw conclusions from.
Henery didn’t kick off in college. However, that had more to do with Nebraska teammate Adi Kunalic’s talent than Henery’s ineptitude. Kunalic twice led the nation in kickoff distance and also made it to the NFL (short stint with the Panthers).
But even if he did, the stats wouldn’t be comparable to Spear’s because the college kickoff rules changed in 2012 to match the 2010 pro rule of kickoffs being from the 35 (although college touchbacks also were changed, to the 25).
Comparing pro and college kickoff distance averages is still flawed for a number of reasons (detailed in footnote 2), and even for a touchback percentage comparison, college returners have a greater incentive to take a knee.
All that said, for sake of thoroughness, here are some numbers:
Spear still doesn’t look great. But do kickers typically gain any strength in the pros? That’s why I put Florida’s Caleb Sturgis in there. He appears to be the only kicker to kick in college after the rule change to play in the pros last year (Miami Dolphins). His data simply adds a (very tiny) amount of info on how the college stats translate to pro stats . It looks like maybe Spear’s 62.7 college average projects to a about a 66 pro average. Maybe.
Comparing kickers with numbers is hard. Previous stats are fun to look at, but this battle looks like it will truly come down to performance in camp.
 There are a number of issues with FG%:
- Any given season’s FG% is based on a small number of kicks, leading to high variability.
- All FG are not created equal (distance, also weather/wind, surface, angle)
- Blocks count as misses for the kicker, when it’s only sometimes the kicker’s fault.
Brian Solomon did a pretty sweet exploration of kickers where he accounted for the distance of each attempt. I will play around with the data in the near future and see if a distance adjusted FG% has a higher correlation coefficient. But until we get that result, we can’t draw any super strong conclusions about Henery compared to Spear with respect to accuracy.
- Different data sources for KO distance have highly different results. Are balls in the endzone marked as if merely kicked to the goal line? Are onside kicks excluded? Are free kicks after safeties included? No data source has both college and pro, and I’m not comfortable using different data sources when I can’t be sure they were measured the same way.
- That said, to make the chart, I used data from cfbstats.com for college numbers and nfl.com for pro numbers. The pro numbers counted onside kicks while the college site did not. So I estimated onside kicks at 11 yards and recalculated the average without onside kicks.
- Standard average KO distance stats inevitably gets messed up by squibs and mortar kicks. And remember that Henery kicked short deliberately throughout the Vikings game. Especially along with onside kicks, these distort averages. I wonder if median KO distance would be a better stat?
BONUS CASEY SPEAR INFO (mostly from Vanderbilt bio):
The theme of bringing in smart, high-character guys continues.
2011-2013 SEC Academic Honor Roll
2013 Wuerffel Award Finalist (1 of 11) (award for college football player “who best combines exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement”)
2013 Allstate-AFCA Good Works Team
One of only three players in Vanderbilt history named as three-time team captain
Active in Catholic church, particularly after being baptized in December 2011
In case you’re wondering from his pictures, yes, he’s half Asian.
Four-year high school letterwinner (Three-year starter as kicker, also started at punter as senior)
Four-year soccer letter winner, earning second team All-State (Ohio) honors as senior… National Honor Society member
I hope he chose his new jersey number (#1) because the number 1 is like a spear.