Stats don't lie: Why Harrison Butker is the NFL's best kicker

For several years, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker has had a firm grip on the title of "NFL's best placekicker." Not anymore.

Super Bowl LVIII - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs
Super Bowl LVIII - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs / Lauren Leigh Bacho/GettyImages

It would be hard to argue against Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker as the greatest at his position in NFL history, based on his combination of power, accuracy, and success. The five-time, first-team All-Pro blasted a 66-yard game-winner in 2021 that set the NFL record for the longest field goal in NFL history, and Tucker's 90.18% success rate makes him the most accurate kicker in league history as well.

However, Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker has been hot on Tucker's trail since entering the league in 2017. The Georgia Tech product now ranks just behind Tucker as the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history at 89.14%. Butker also rivals Tucker's power.

Up until 2023, there was not a strong argument for anyone but Tucker as the league's best kicker. Butker joined the Chiefs after being plucked from the Panthers' practice squad in 2017 and has had a stranglehold on the job in Kansas City ever since. Despite his prowess, Butker has never made a Pro Bowl and has never been named as a first or second-team All-Pro. That is largely due to Tucker's reputation.

For several years, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker has had a firm grip on the title of "NFL's best placekicker." Not anymore.

A look at the numbers in 2023 seems to indicate that Butker has finally eclipsed Tucker as the game's best kicker.

While Tucker connected on 32-of-37 field goals last season (86.5%), Butker managed 33-of-35 (a career-high 94.3%). Butker also did not miss an extra point in 2023, but Tucker missed one. Both kickers were perfect in the postseason, though it's worth noticing that Butker had a lot more opportunities, playing in four playoff games opposed to Tucker's two. For overall accuracy, one has to give the nod to Butker for his performance in last year's campaign.

The tide is shifting Butker's way in leg strength, as well. Obviously, the kicker does not have any ability to affect where he is attempting field goals, but perhaps the most divisive statistic that separates these two star kickers is their performance on 50+ yard field goals in 2023. Butker was a perfect 7-of-7 (including the playoffs) from beyond 50 yards last season, with a long of 60. Tucker's longest field goal in 2023 was just 50 yards, and he was an uncharacteristically inferior 1-of-5 from 50+ last year.

If you eliminate Butker's questionable miss in New England where the kicking balls were under-inflated, both kickers only missed one kick from inside 50 yards in 2023. But Tucker's mediocre performance from long range stands out strongly here. When you factor in that Butker also tacked on an all-time Arrowhead record 62-yarder vs. the Bills in 2022, and most recently contributed the longest field goal in Super Bowl history (57 yards), we have to go with Butker in kicking power, as well.

While distinguishing a kicker's efficiency on kickoffs feels like splitting hairs (a little bit like contrasting run-blocking when talking about elite tight end play), let's take a quick look at it. Tucker reached a touchback on 80-of-101 kickoffs (79%) in 2023, while Butker thumped 74-of-85 (87%). That's Butker's highest percentage in his career, topping his previous high from his rookie campaign (78%). Tucker had only topped 70% one other time in his 13-year career (2015) before 2023.

One of the most important facets of being a kicker is coming in in the clutch. It's one thing to hit an October kick in the early second quarter; an entirely different thing to come on in the cold with an opportunity to win a football game. Four of Tucker's five misses in 2023 came in games that ended in a one-score finish. That won't cut it. Butker's only miss in a loss came on Christmas Day when he missed a 36-yarder, but the Chiefs had far bigger problems that day and no one blames him for that loss.

Speaking of clutch, let's highlight two of Butker's performances in this most recent playoffs: one in minus-20-degree temperatures in the Wild Card game in which he was 4-of-4 on field goals. The other was the Super Bowl, in which Butker converted 4-of-4 regulation field goals in a game that ultimately went into overtime. "Butt Kicker" put on an absolute masterclass this postseason:

Overall, the kicker question sounds similar to the Tom Brady versus Patrick Mahomes quarterback question when Brady was still an active player. One cannot ignore the longevity and greatness of Tucker, but he has taken the back seat to the new elite at the position. The more remarkable and recent success of Butker has elevated his current status to that of NFL's top placekicker, effective immediately. Case closed.