How Much is an Elite Kick Returner Worth?

| February 17th, 2020

Earlier this offseason, I suggested the Bears could release Cordarrelle Patterson to free up just under $5M in cap room. A number of people responded that Patterson was the best kick returner in the NFL in 2019 and thus was worth the money. I wasn’t sold that any kick returner was worth that much, but set out to figure out just how much value they add.

Here’s the general setup:

  • I used the Pro Football Reference Drive Finder to look at every drive over the last 5 years that started with a kickoff and didn’t include any kneeldowns.
  • I split the field into 10 yard ranges.
  • I tallied up touchdowns and field goals from drives that started in each field position range to figure out average points/drive. Note: this assumes all touchdowns net 7 points, which is not technically true, and fails to factor in anything about offensive quality.

Based on that approach, here’s what I found the average points expected for drives off of kickoffs that started in a variety of field positions.

This generally matches expectation, as teams are expected to score more points the closer to the opposing end zone they start. By the time they’re inside the opponent 40 yard line, the expected points are higher than a field goal.

Using this data, I then looked at the Bears’ starting field position off of kickoffs in 2018, when they did not have Cordarrelle Patterson vs. 2019, when they did.

Looking at this table, it immediately becomes apparent that Patterson didn’t help the Bears avoid bad starts on drives off of kickoffs; they started inside the 20 yard line 12 times in 2018 and 14 times in 2019. His value, then, came in giving them more drives starting in plus field position, as they went from 2 to 13 drives starting outside the 30.

To quantify that value, I multiplied drives in a field position grouping by expected points/drive for that grouping (7 for return touchdowns), then added up for the entire season to get expected points off of kickoffs. Since there are a different number of returns each year, I normalized this by comparing to what the expected points would be if every kickoff ended in a touchback. It is not always possible to get a touchback since kickoffs don’t always go into the end zone, but this is a useful way to easily compare samples with a different size.

The 2018 Bears had:

  • 63 drives from kickoffs.
  • Their starting field position on those drives gave them an expected point value of 117.6 points.
  • If they had started each drive with a touchback, they would have an expected point value of 120.5 points, meaning they actually lost 2.9 expected points – roughly a field goal – over the course of the season by returning kicks.

In 2019:

  • That swung in the opposite direction, as the Bears gained 6.4 expected points compared to taking a touchback on every kickoff.
  • So Patterson helped them gain a total of 9.3 expected points compared to 2018 with his work as a kick returner.
  • Of course, almost all of that is caught up in 1 return touchdown; on the other 68 returns, his value was indistinguishable from taking a touchback on every kickoff (this felt wrong, but I triple-checked the numbers, and they check out. It’s due to having 14 drives start inside the 20, which was due to a combination of Patterson getting tackled early and penalties by other players).

So when it comes to Patterson’s value justifying the $4.75M of cap savings from cutting him, I could honestly see the argument both ways. On the one hand, his overall value over the course of a season doesn’t really justify that much money. On the other hand, the big returns have the potential to swing a game or two, which could mean the difference between making the playoffs or watching from home. Patterson also adds big play potential (albeit in limited touches) on offense, and is an excellent gunner on special teams.

I’m fine with the Bears continuing to pay him, but also would be fine if they chose to cut him and spend that money on, say, a starting tight end. An offensive or defensive starter would have a more consistent impact on games, even if Patterson has greater potential for explosive impact at any given moment.

League Wide

Lastly, I want to see how this approach works across the NFL. The graph below shows how all 32 NFL teams fared in expected points on drives starting from kickoffs in 2019 compared to if they had simply taken a touchback every time.

Here you can see there’s not a lot of variation. The lowest team lost around 5 points of expected value, while the best team gained around 10. Every team but 1 that was more than 5 points better than touchbacks got there through a return touchdown, meaning that 1 single play accounted for the bulk of their surplus. The league average is only about 2 expected points better than if every kickoff ended in a touchback. Over the course of a season, that is a minimal effect.

The NFL has made a series of rule changes over the last 10-15 years to try and make kickoffs safer. They encouraged touchbacks by moving the kicker up from the 30 to the 35 and moving a touchback up from the 20 to the 25. They made it harder for teams to block on returns by outlawing the “wedge” blocking formations that gave the returner the best chance at a big play. The end result is that kick returns have mostly lost their value, and thus kickoff returners have too.

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