Keeping Kickoff Specialist May Be Smart For Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills signed veteran kicker Rian Lindell to a four-year, $11 million contract this past February. Two months later, they used a seventh-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft on Western Michigan kicker John Potter, with the idea that the rookie could compete for a roster spot as a kickoff specialist.

That's an unusual amount of resources for a team to pour into the kicking position in one off-season, and it's left Bills fans pondering the merits of keeping two kickers.

Sean McCormick, who authored the Bills chapter in this year's Football Outsiders Almanac - and who has therefore done intensive data analysis on the 2011 Bills, and what they're expected to do this season - sees ample reason for keeping a dedicated kickoff specialist, particularly in Buffalo.

"It is absolutely worthwhile to keep someone on the roster who can reliably put the ball deep," McCormick writes.

"Field goal accuracy is one of the least reliable statistics in football," McCormick continues, "which is one reason why it is a terrible use of resources when teams burn early-round picks on kickers, expecting to secure a yearly dividend of 50-plus yard game-winning field goals. On the other hand, one of the most consistent statistics from year-to-year is kickoff length."

It's a statistic that Lindell, who has kicked in Buffalo for going on a decade now, has never been good in. Even after the NFL changed kickoff rules in 2011, making touchbacks an annoyingly common occurrence, Lindell ranked among the league's worst in forcing opponents to begin from their 20-yard line.

That field position, even if it's just a yard or two when all is said and done, could be critical. As McCormick points out in the Almanac, Buffalo's offense ranked No. 12 in the NFL in yards per drive in 2011 - putting them considerably ahead of division rivals Miami and New York - but only produced 1.73 points per drive, putting them just behind the Jets, and just ahead of the Dolphins.

The reason for the Bills scoring fewer than expected points, says FO? Field position. Buffalo's averaging drive start of the 26.49-yard line ranked 27th, while the Patriots' 28.94-yard line ranked ninth. That's only a 2.5-yard difference between the top and the bottom of the league, but those extra few yards could help Buffalo's point output tremendously.

Granted, a much better defense would help the Bills in the field position battle far more, and the Bills' net line of scrimmage ranking - which finds the difference between the LOS averages for the offense and the defense - of -2.94 ranked 26th, and was well behind New England (4.89, No. 2), New York (1.51, No. 10) and Miami (1.45, No. 12). As a result, the Pats, Jets and Dolphins were far more efficient point scorers than the Bills.

A better defense will help the Bills more in the field position battle than will a kickoff specialist, but the kickoff specialist should still contribute to that cause - and to the stat crunchers at FO, it's perfectly justifiable to keep one, particularly if that kicker can also eventually kick field goals, as well.

"Ideally, your kickoff specialist is competent enough to double as your regular kicker, but I think you can easily justify keeping a dedicated specialist on your roster, as he will contribute more than the fifth wide receiver or seventh defensive back who might otherwise take the roster spot," McCormick says.

Potter, by most accounts, has had a strong training camp to date, and has been fairly consistent kicking field goals from distance. It remains unlikely that he'll completely unseat Lindell for full kicking duties this year, but knowing that he's doing well, and with supporting evidence that a kickoff specialist might not be such a bad thing to have, does anyone feel differently about this situation now?

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