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The Struggles of Mike Nugent Compared to Josh Brown

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Since Week 2, Mike Nugent has been struggling mightily, particularly in contrast to former Bengals K Josh Brown.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

In the first half of the Week 1 game in Baltimore, Mike Nugent was outstanding at placekicking. He went five for give on field goals. Using the "zones" from the vintage Madden Clutch Kicking minigame:

Madden FG

Nugent had three of his makes go right down the middle (red), and his other two makes went in the intermediate right orange zone. His most impressive make was a 49-yarder that went through the red zone.

Since then, Nugent has gone a combined nine of 15, making him 14 of 20 on the season. His 70 percent conversion rate is ranked 29th out of 31 qualifying placekickers, ahead of only undrafted rookies Brandon McManus of Denver and Patrick Murray of Tampa Bay. (There are three other undrafted rookie kickers, Chandler Catanzaro of Arizona, Cody Parkey of Philadephia, and Cairo Santos of Kansas City, who are ranked ahead of Nugent). Nugent is just 10-16 (62.5 percent) from 30+ yards. Excluding his first half of Week 1 that buoyed his production, he is just 7-13 (53.8 percent) from 30+.

Nugent has struggled on kickoffs as well. His 32.6 percent touchback rate is ranked 32nd out of 33 qualifying kickoff specialists, ahead of only Nick Novak of San Diego. But Novak is tied for first in the league with a 100% FG conversion rate, having gone 14/14 including 10/10 from 30+, meaning that Novak makes up for questionable leg strength with his outstanding accuracy. And McManus is first in the league in touchback rate at 78.7 percent, and Murray is three of four on field goal attempts from 50+ (Tampa Bay's punter does the kickoffs), meaning that these two rookies try to make up for questionable overall accuracy with their outstanding leg strength. On the other hand, Nugent has had neither accuracy nor leg strength.

Nugent allows the seventh-highest opponents' KR average in the league at 26.0 yards. That is on 29 returns, the third-highest number of allowed returns in the league, meaning that Nugent's kickoffs have been consistently short, such that returners are very willing to bring the ball out, and do so effectively. His opposing KR average would probably be closer to highest in the league than seventh-highest, if the Bengals didn't have good special teams coverage players.

At 4.28 seconds, Nugent has the worst hangtime in the league on kickoffs, allowing opponents to get favorable return conditions.

If you look at NFL.com's stat page, you'll see that Nugent is supposedly ranked first in the league among qualified kickoff specialists with an average of 67.0 yards. But that is extremely misleading, because all touchbacks are automatically deemed 65 yards (from 35 yards to the opposing goal line), while a kickoff just one yard deep into the end zone is deemed 66 yards as long as it is returned. For example, one of Stephen Gostkowski's kickoffs against the Broncos last Sunday traveled a real distance of about 90 yards and landed directly in the stands, but it was recorded as just 65 yards.

Meanwhile, Nugent had an opening kickoff that went just three yards deep into the end zone, yet it was recorded as 68 yards...simply because it was returned (note that this was Nugent's longest kickoff of six on the day). If Jags KR Jordan Todman had elected to take a knee just three yards deep, Nugent's kickoff would have been recorded as 65 yards. The fact that Gostkowski is ranked 22nd in the league among qualified kickoff specialists in average actually means he has a much stronger leg than Nugent, because Gostkowski boots a much greater rate of touchbacks, especially out of the end zone. His kickoffs often have real distances of 80 yards or longer, yet they are recorded as 65 yards each. So this is a statistic that shouldn't be interpreted the wrong way.

Football Outsiders rated the Bengals placekicking game with Nugent as second-worst in the league, ahead of only the disaster in Detroit (a combination of Nate Freese, Alex Henery, and Matt Prater). Interestingly, the Bengals ST unit is still ranked ninth overall, because Football Outsiders says the Bengals have the top punting unit in the NFL to go with an above-average return game.

Former Bengals K Josh Brown, who the Bengals let go after 2012-2013 without having him compete with Mike Nugent, is currently the kicker for the Giants. He is tied with Novak and two others for first out of 31 placekickers in the league with a 100 percent FG conversion rate, including 8/8 from 30+. Brown is 1-1 from 50+, and Nugent is 0-2. In touchback ratings, Brown is ninth out of 33 kickoff specialists at 65.6 percent. Brown has a touchback rate that is more than double Nugent's.

Brown allows the lowest opposing KR average in the NFL at 18.0 yards. And that is on just 11 returns, tied for the third-lowest number of allowed returns in the league, meaning that Brown's kickoffs have been consistently long enough such that they go out of the end zone, or the returners are reluctant to bring it out - and when they do, it's usually not a good decision.

This is an important stat, because not allowing the opponents to return the kick denies them an opportunity to get good field position. Nugent has surrendered this to the opponent on 67% (29/43) of his kickoffs, as compared to 34% (11/32) for Brown. And again, on Nugent's 29 surrendered returns he has given up the seventh-highest opposing KR average in the NFL, while Brown has given up the lowest opposing KR average in the NFL on his 11 surrendered returns.

Therefore, with Mike Nugent, the kick returner can consistently bring it out beyond the 20-yard line on any given kickoff. Last Sunday, on Nugent's 6 kickoffs, none were touchbacks and the pedestrian Jordan Todman had an average return of 28.8 yards for 173 total yards. With Josh Brown, the ball will normally be booted out of the end zone or very deep for the returner to take a touchback, and in the unlikely case the ball is brought out, the returner will most likely be stuffed before the 20.

I've taken the time to watch all 20 of Nugent's FG attempts this year and compare them to the "Madden zones" shown above. Here's a summary:

Week, Opponent


Distance, Spot placement


What Madden FG zone? (crossing the plane of the uprights, NOT where the ball hits the net)

Comments

Week 1, at Ravens

49 yards, left hashmark

Red

Very impressive kick, down the middle

Week 1

22 yards, between center and right hashmark

Right orange

Okay kick

Week 1

28 yards, left hashmark

Red

Down the middle

Week 1

46 yards, left hashmark

Right orange

Impressive kick

Week 1

38 yards, dead-center

Red

Down the middle

Week 1

45 yards, between center and right hashmark

Missed

Blocked

Week 2, vs. Falcons

31 yards, right hashmark

Red

Down the middle

Week 2

38 yards, right hashmark

Missed

Wide right, poor kick

Week 2

49 yards, left hashmark

Missed

Wide left, poor kick

Week 2

55 yards, right hashmark

Missed

Well wide left, and also short

Week 3, vs. Titans

29 yards, left hashmark

Right yellow

Nearly wide right, hit the net well to the right of the right upright, poor kick

Week 5, at Patriots

52 yards, left hashmark

Missed

On target, but short

Week 5

23 yards, dead-center

Red

Down the middle

Week 6, vs. Panthers

44 yards, left hashmark

Right orange

Impressive kick

Week 6

38 yards, left hashmark

Red

Clutch kick to take lead with 2 min left in 4th quarter

Week 6

42 yards, left hashmark

Right yellow

So-so and nearly wide right, but still a clutch OT kick

Week 6

36 yards, dead-center

Missed

Well wide right, didn’t even hit the net, terrible Shayne Graham-esque kick ending the game in a tie

Week 7, vs. Ravens

32 yards, left hashmark

Right yellow

Nearly wide right, hit the net well to the right of the right upright, poor kick

Week 7

33 yards, right hashmark

Right orange

Okay kick

Week 8, vs. Jaguars

31 yards, left hashmark

Right yellow

Nearly wide right, hit the net well to the right of the right upright, poor kick

Note that Nugent has had four FG makes this season that were struck about as poorly as his misses, and which were oh-so-close to being wide right. What makes this scarier is that three of them were from only about 30 yards out. If you compare a Nugent miss from Week 2 to, say, Nugent's make in Week 8, they were both booted very poorly. Nugent simply got luckier in Week 8 by a few more feet such that the ball barely snuck inside the uprights, as compared to Week 2 when it snuck wide.

Nugent has the 10th-highest salary among kickers in the league, at $1.3 million. Brown's salary this year with the Giants is $300,000 cheaper.

We can't forget about Quinn Sharp, either. His non-guaranteed contract had a total value of just $930,000 for 2014 and 2015 combined. Sharp greatly outperformed Nugent in touchback percentage in each of the last two preseasons (60 percent to 42 percent), and was 4/4 on field goals during that time, making good from 28, 34, 47, and 51 yards. In both training camp and preseason, Sharp routinely made field goals with 5-10 more yards to spare than Nugent. Furthermore, Sharp is just 24 years old now. He is currently on the practice squad of the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL.

The vast majority of current kickers in the NFL won their job as cheap, unheralded (late-round or undrafted), effective rookies or first or second-year players, and Sharp falls under this category. One easy example of this is within the Bengals' own division. In 2012 preseason, Justin Tucker, as an undrafted rookie with no NFL experience, outperformed veteran Billy Cundiff (who himself was undrafted). The likes of Nugent and Sebastian Janikowski who were heralded high-round draft picks are the exception for kickers, not the rule. It would not be a surprise at all if Quinn Sharp could step in at K for the Bengals and be an instant upgrade over Nugent.

In summary, Mike Nugent is arguably the second-worst kickoff specialist and third-worst placekicker in the league. His field goal conversion rate from 30+ yards is barely above 60 percent. Excluding the first half of the Week 1 game, his FG percentage from 30+ drops close to 50 percent. Plus, four of his FG makes this season were struck about as poorly as his misses. By no means is any of this a criticism of Nugent as a person - rather, it's a criticism of his lack of on-field performance, especially in contrast to Josh Brown.

It's disappointing how Brown, a borderline elite NFL kicker who dominates Nugent in both accuracy and leg strength, was let go. What makes it extra sad is that in 2012-2013, the Bengals watched Brown outperform Nugent firsthand, and they still let Brown walk. Therefore, it's unlikely that there was any "decision" between Brown and Nugent. Instead, it was most likely a foregone conclusion for the Bengals front office that ever since replacing Shayne Graham in 2010, Nugent was (and is) the Bengals' established kicker. And ever since being signed in 2012, Brown was thought of by the Bengals as a temporary injury fill-in and nothing more. Brown likely never had a serious long-term chance with the Bengals no matter how well he did, just like Quinn Sharp never had any real chance each of the past two preseasons even though he mildly outperformed Nugent.