Researching kickers for fantasy purposes is a little like going to the dentist: you only do it once a year, it’s a pain in the ass, and you can probably get away with not doing it at all. But like the dentist, it’s a relatively small inconvenience and it can save you from something worse happening.
The fact that you’re already reading this site indicates that you probably know the cardinal rule of drafting kickers, but I’ll repeat it here, just in case: Never draft a kicker before the last round.
There are lots of reasons why you should not spend any more than the bare minimum on a kicker. They are notoriously unreliable year to year, for one. Remember that awesome David Akers season in 2011, when he led all kickers in fantasy points? (Actually, I hope for your sake that you don’t remember this.) That guy made just 69 percent of his kicks last year, and the Niners promptly cut him.
The other reason you shouldn’t sweat kickers is that they’re all basically the same guy. Sure they are all beautifully unique sparkleponies in their real lives, but for fantasy purposes, think of the kickers as one giant, homogenous, strong-legged blob.
The Giant, Homogenous, Strong-Legged Blob
Last year’s best fantasy kicker was Blair Walsh, who put up 168 points. (A quick note on methodology: I’m using the scoring system that awards five points for makes beyond 50 yards and 4 points for makes from 40-49 yards out.) The 12th-best kicker in fantasy was Phil Dawson, who put up 135 points, or a little over 80 percent of Walsh’s production. That's not a remarkably large gap between the best and worst fantasy starters at the position.
And that’s assuming you had the 12th kicker in all of fantasy, or the worst starting kicker in your league. What if you had an average fantasy kicker, say Shayne Graham, who was the 6th-best kicker last season? Graham put up 153 points, or 91 percent of Walsh’s production. The difference between most fantasy kickers is so negligible that it’s not worth reaching to grab a top guy.
And speaking of those top guys – who are they exactly? Here’s a fun stat: of last year’s top nine fantasy kickers, exactly one (Stephen Gostkowski) was in the top nine in 2011. Of 2011’s top nine, only three (Akers, Sebastian Janikowski and Neil Rackers) were top nine in 2010. That’s a crazy amount of turnover.
On top of that, Grantland’s Bill Barnwell posted some results of a study on kickers that showed the league’s best kickers and the league’s worst kickers in any given single season go on to produce at nearly the exact same rate the following season. In fact, the league’s worst kickers outperformed the best kickers in that follow-up season. Basically a single season and 35-50 field goal attempts is nowhere near a big enough sample size to truly evaluate kicker talent. You really can’t identify a “stud” fantasy kicker the way you can with a quarterback or running back, so why bother spending anything other than a last-round pick on one?
But you do have to pick up a kicker at some point, so it’s best to do so with at least some sort of strategy in mind. Do you want a kicker on a team with a great offense, one that ensures he’ll at least be kicking a ton of extra points? Do you want a kicker on a team with a crummy offense that constantly stalls out on drives, leading to more valuable field goal opportunities?
Like most things in the mysterious world of kickers, the answer is complicated. In general, it appears that kickers on good offensive teams make for the best fantasy kickers. Of last year’s 10 most productive fantasy kickers, nine played for teams in the top half of the league in scoring. (The one who didn’t was Jason Hanson, who kicked for the Lions’ 17th-best offense.)
In 2011, the same findings generally held true. Of the 10 best fantasy kickers, six kicked for teams in the top half of the league in scoring, and two more kicked for teams that just missed the cut, at 17th and 18th.
Since you can’t identify top-level kickers with any reliability, don’t mess around and just take one in the last round. It’s like going to the dentist: wait until you absolutely have to do it, then just get it over with.