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What can we expect from the Hopkins/Pineiro kicker competition?

NFL: AUG 21 Preseason - Colts at Vikings

In the past week, I’ve been accused of having Dustin Hopkins in my “crosshairs” and of unfairly representing his 2020 performance by simply presenting full season data, so it was comforting yesterday when, contrary to his previous assurances that he wasn’t “concerned” about Hopkins’ shaky kicking this preseason, Ron Rivera brought in young kicker, Eddy Pineiro, who had been released by the Colts.

I’ve detailed Hopkins’ fairly mediocre career here in the recent past, so rather than re-hash that, I thought I’d focus my attention on Pineiro, and what he brings to the table.

From Soccer to Football

The son of Cuban and Nicaraguan immigrants, as a child, Pineiro’s athletic focus was on soccer, where he excelled. In his senior year of high school, despite having never played football before, Pineiro handled kickoffs and extra points for his team.

He received a soccer scholarship to Florida Atlantic, but ended up not attending as a result of his academic performance. Eventually, he attended an open kicking competition for the University of Alabama, where he ended up being one of two kickers given scholarship offers by Nick Saban. Though he verbally committed to Alabama at that point, he decided to play for his home state University of Florida.

At Florida, Pineiro excelled. During his junior year, his final season as a Gator, he had the best FG conversion rate in the country (94.4%) and he led all draft-eligible kickers in average kickoff distance (70.4 yards). He has a booming leg, as evidenced in the video below:

As a point of comparison, by the end of their respective college careers, Dustin Hopkins had a field goal percentage of 78.6% and extra point percentage of 97.6%, while Pineiro’s field goal percentage was 88.4% and his extra point percentage was 96.6%.

The Pros

Though apparently Jon Gruden was prepared to draft Pineiro in the 7th round in 2018, he ended up not needing to. Instead, the Raiders grabbed the kicker as an undrafted free agent. He spent 2018 on IR with the Raiders, and was eventually traded to the Bears, in 2019, for a conditional 7th round pick in the 2021 draft.

Pineiro had an average season for the Bears in 2019, finishing a few slots behind Hopkins in field goal percentage (83.3% vs. 82.1%) his first year in the league. Pineiro appeared on track to be the starting kicker for the Bears in 2020, but came down with a groin injury in training camp that year, and ended up going on to season-ending IR before the 2020 season.

Released by the Bears following 2020, Pineiro was picked up by the Colts to compete with their young kicker, Rodrigo Blankenship, in camp in 2021. Though Pineiro was perfect in the preseason, the Colts ended up sticking with Blankenship and releasing Pineiro at final cutdowns.

2021 Pre-Season

As a further point of comparison between the two Washington kickers, Pineiro’s and Hopkins’ pre-season statistics for this year are below:

  • Pineiro - 4/4 FG, long of 50 yards. 1/1 EP
  • Hopkins - 4/7 FG, long of 48 yards. 1/1 EP

But What About Touchbacks?

We’re often told how amazing Dustin Hopkins’ touchback percentage is, and how the value his ability to kick the ball into or through the end zone consistently (around 74% of the time, for his career) is a sneaky strength he brings to the table.

It turns out, that assumption, that touchbacks are superior to the alternative, is probably based on antiquated thinking. Prior to 2016, touchbacks put the receiving team at their own 20 yard line. In an attempt to disincentivize actual kickoffs, to try to cut down on high velocity injuries, the league pushed touchbacks up 5 yards, to the 25 yard line for the receiving team. Turns out, that little change had a significant impact.

A few years ago, a writer at the Jets’ “Gang Green Nation” wrote an analytical piece entitled, “Are Touchbacks Actually Beneficial for the Kicking Team?” It’s a very nice article, and I’d encourage you to read it, but I’ve excerpted liberally from the article below:

1% of kick returns in 2017 resulted in a return score or turnover. So, a touchback eliminates a 50-50 chance your team is on the wrong end of that one play out of 100. A total amount of opportunities that, as mentioned before, teams don’t even come halfway to over a full season in this era. In the big play department, a touchback is a net zero.

Here is where the negative value of touchbacks comes into play. The average kick return in 2017 was 21.6 yards, and that includes yardage coming out of the end zone. Let’s estimate that kicks returned out of the end zone culminate around the 20 on average. So, as the kicking team, that means on average allowing a team to return a kick out of its own end zone is somewhere around 5 yards more valuable to you than a touchback would be.

Basically by taking a touchback you are trading about 5 yards of field position (which adds up over an entire season) to eliminate both the approximately 1/150 chance a backbreaker goes against you and the approximately 1/150 chance a game-changer goes your way. Since those two cancel each other out, it can be argued that a touchback is on average simply a net loss of about 5 yards for the kicking team. Of course, I didn’t include 99-yard returns that set up a touchdown or muffed 1-yard returns that set up a safety or great field position for the opponent. This isn’t an exact science. However, this collection of numbers made me start to think that aiming for a touchback seems like a net negative.

These are precisely the sort of minor rule tweaks that the most astute minds in the game quickly evaluate and leverage to their advantage, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the greatest coach in NFL history quickly adapted to the change.

The Patriots led the league in kickoff DVOA (value added on kickoff coverage) in 2017; they were 30th in touchback percentage.

So, essentially, the minor shift of touchbacks 5 yards further away from the end zone was enough to tip the analytical balance against touchbacks, in the favor of kicks just short of the end zone. And after all, what’s the point of blazingly fast gunners if they’re not going to be used to stop runners in the field of play?

All this is to say, Pineiro’s lower touchback percentage (50%) than Hopkins’ is not only not a mark against him, but actually may be a trait in his favor. As long as Pineiro has the ability to kick it through the end zone when it’s absolutely necessary - and it certainly appears that he does - his kickoff leg strength shouldn’t be of concern.

Conclusion

The hope all pre-season has been not that Dustin Hopkins would be cut and cast aside without an alternative plan in place, but instead simply that - like every other position on the roster - the team’s kicking would be benefitted by competition. I’m encouraged that Coach Rivera and Nate Kaczor have decided to bring a kicker onto the practice squad, and the more I learn about him, the more excited I am that it’s Pineiro. The young soccer player with the booming leg may have a future in DC. Only time will tell.

Poll

How do you think Washington’s kicking situation plays out?

  • 19%
    Hopkins will be the kicker all year.
    (213 votes)
  • 58%
    Hopkins will falter and Pineiro will get a chance to play.
    (641 votes)
  • 7%
    Jake Verity is the truth.
    (79 votes)
  • 14%
    Can we stop talking about kickers?
    (164 votes)
1097 votes total Vote Now