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No position is more unpredictable in fantasy football than kickers. Year after year after year, no position has a lower correlation between where they're drafted before the season and where they finish after the season. No position has a lower correlation between how they score in one week and how they score in the next. No position has a lower correlation between projected points and actual points.
In addition, placekicker is the position that has the smallest spread between the best players and the middle-of-the-pack players for fantasy. Finally, most fantasy GMs will only carry one kicker at a time, which means there are a dozen or more starting kickers sitting around on waivers at any given time. Given all of this, it rarely makes sense to devote resources to the position. Instead, GMs are best served by rotating through whichever available kicker has the best weekly matchup.
Every week, I'll rank the situations each kicker finds himself in (ignoring the talent of the kicker himself) to help you find perfectly startable production off the waiver wire.
If you've played fantasy football for a while, you're undoubtedly familiar with the common recommendation that you not bother drafting a kicker until your very last pick of the draft. You might not be sure why this is the best way to go, however.
In 2013, Chase Stuart looked at average draft position (ADP) data dating back to the year 2000. For each position, he calculated how many points over replacement owners got on average from the first player drafted at a position, from the second, from the third, and so on.
In 2005, the first quarterback off the board was Peyton Manning, who had a strong season and finished the year 3rd at his position. In 2008, the first quarterback off the board was Tom Brady, who got injured in his first game and produced essentially no value. Average together Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and every other quarterback who came off the board first in any given year, and the average value of the top quarterback selected was 84.2 fantasy points over replacement.
Chase then repeated that process for every draft slot at every position. The top running back drafted gave about 126.5 points of value over replacement, the top wide receiver gave 107.5 points, the top tight end gave 58.5 points over replacement, the top defense gave 14.6 points over replacement, and the #1 kicker off the board gave... 8.1 points of value over the course of the whole season.
Not only were the top-drafted kickers not very valuable, but they also barely outperformed later-drafted kickers. The 12th kicker off the board provided 5.6 points over replacement, on average, meaning the difference between being the first team to draft a kicker and the last team to draft a kicker is just 2.5 points over a full season.
So there's no compelling reason to be the first GM to draft a kicker. Or the second GM, or the third. For that matter, there's no real reason to be the eighth or the tenth. In fact, unless your league mandates it, there's really no reason to draft a kicker at all!
Indeed, it's possible to get very competitive production from your kicker spot without spending a single resource on it all season long simply by grabbing whatever dregs and castoffs your league has left on the waiver wire and starting it every week. Which is what this column is for— we'll identify mediocre kickers with phenomenal matchups who are likely to be free agents in your league and track how they perform throughout the season. And since accountability is a big deal around here, we'll track our results so you can see just how much production you really can get by treating kickers are interchangeable pieces in a larger machine.
There are a few positive indicators for which kickers are likely to have better weeks. Talent is certainly one of those indicators. The problem for our purposes is that talent is expensive. Justin Tucker might just be the best kicker in NFL history— a claim that I do not make lightly. As a result, he typically scores slightly more than you might expect from an average kicker in the same situations. But Justin Tucker is also the first kicker off the board right now by ADP and we're determined not to pay a premium.
The other problem for our purposes is that talent is virtually impossible to estimate. Placekicking results are so noisy that, outside of Tucker and perhaps a couple of veterans like Matt Prater with a decade or more in the league, we just don't know who is genuinely good and who is just on a hot streak. Even then it's dicey. Last year I named Stephen Gostkowski as a proven veteran who we could be relatively confident was good; Gostkowski finished the year with the third-worst field goal percentage in the league.
For less-proven guys it's even more of a roller-coaster. Through thirteen games in 2019, rookie Matt Gay ranked 5th in the league in field goals over expectation (based on the distance of each kick). Over his final three games, Gay made just three of his eight attempts. Gay ranked 6th in ADP heading into last year but was cut before the season even started and spent the first 10 weeks out of the NFL. Then he landed with the Rams and was the #6 fantasy kicker over the final seven weeks, making 87.5% of his field goals and 100% of his extra points. Gay now enters the season as a projected starter and Top 12 kicker by ADP again, but seeing him yo-yo between all-star and unrosterable, do we have any idea whether he's a good kicker or not?
As a result, my model doesn't even consider kicker talent in making its weekly recommendations. We can't afford the best guys and everyone else is pretty undifferentiated talent-wise. Most kickers in the NFL are Stephen Gostkowskis or Matt Gays. They're basically 80% kickers who sometimes get lucky or unlucky over short stretches. So like I said, we won't even consider talent.
What we will consider is the projected Las Vegas point spread and game location. Typically we want kickers on offenses who are projected to score lots of points because lots of points means lots of kicks. We prefer kickers in domes or Denver and would rather avoid kickers in places like Buffalo, New York, or Green Bay, Wisconsin, especially late in the season. Finally, we want to avoid kickers who are big underdogs, because teams that trail by a lot often eschew field goal attempts to go for it on 4th down.
If you're still a little bit skeptical about how effective streaming kickers off of the waiver wire can be, I tracked the results of all of my picks through last year and summarized them here. Here's the upshot:
- If you started my top weekly pick every week of the year, you would have finished with the 6th-most valuable "kicker" in your league.
- If you selected one of my top 5 weekly recommendations at random, you would have finished with the 9th-most valuable "kicker".
- These rankings underrate your true production relative to your leaguemates because several of the kickers who finished ahead of this streaming amalgam were not drafted or started in many of their big games. In fact, some of the kickers who finished ahead of this amalgam were players we picked up and started early in the season who you could have easily held on and continued to start afterward. As such, it is likely that overall your team would have finished better than 6th in scoring at the position.
- The first four kickers off the board outscored our streaming kickers by an average of 3.25 points. Not per game, but 3.25 points over the whole season. And this despite the fact that none of those four kickers was a bust; the lowest-ranked of the bunch, Wil Lutz, was the #9 fantasy kicker last year.
Last year was not an aberration; Rent-a-Kicker's top weekly recommendation would have finished 5th in 2019 and 8th in 2018. I expect similar results this year and will continue to track outcomes every week so you can see how we're doing.
Week 1 Situations
**Since streaming kickers is so popular and rostered players can vary across leagues, here is a list of how favorable every kicker's situation is based on Vegas projected totals and stadium. Quality plays who are on waivers in over 50% of leagues based on NFL.com roster percentages are italicized and will be highlighted in next week's column. Also, note that these rankings are kicker-agnostic; teams will occasionally change kickers mid-week, but any endorsements apply equally to whatever kicker winds up eventually getting the start.**
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