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 a dozen or more starting kickers are 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 as 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 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, we just don't know who is genuinely good and who is just on a hot streak. Even then, it's dicey. The guys with an average substantially better than you'd expect all have such small sample sizes that it's likely a fluke. The guys with huge sample sizes all have averages that are about what you'd expect. In the past, I've tried to name other kickers who were probably a bit better average. Three years ago, I mentioned 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 and never played another NFL game.
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 2020 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. He converted on a ridiculous 94% of his field goals in 2021 and 2022 and then signed the largest free agent contract at the position in NFL history. Again, this is a guy who may have never gotten another opportunity if not for a late injury in 2020.
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 bit skeptical about how effective streaming kickers off the waiver wire can be, I tracked the results of all of my picks through last year and summarized them here. 2022 was a down year for the model, with a per-game average of 6.82 points, which would have ranked 12th among all kickers. That followed a tremendously good year, as the model averaged 8.45 points per game in 2021 (which would have ranked 2nd). In 2020, 2019, and 2018, it averaged 7.39, 7.65, and 7.43 points per game, respectively.
Now, it's always easy for an analyst to blame down years on bad luck. But hopefully, it means something that I've been just as quick to blame strong years on good luck, writing the following at the end of 2021: "It was easily our best year to date, which is mostly just luck because the model is the same as it's always been, but I'm happy that the model's good fortune is your good fortune."
At the end of the day, I believe the model is exactly what it seems to be over the full five-year sample: a tool for finding kickers who'll get you about 7.5 points per game, with small short-term deviations from the trend. 7.5 points per game will usually rank in the 6th-8th range at the position, a ranking that is better than it seems since several of the kickers who do better will not be the early draft picks but waiver-wire gems and Rent-a-Kicker alumni who stuck around.
Or to paraphrase what I said last year when we were riding high: Given that the model hasn't changed, I think we got a bit (un)lucky in 2022, and I'd expect the model to once again give you kicker production in the 6th-8th range (with several of the better kickers coming from players who are currently unrostered). Not bad, given that we will go the entire season without spending a single resource at the position, relying entirely on kickers that no one else even wants.
As always, I'll track results all year long so you can see how we're doing, and if the model doesn't rebound like I expect it to, we'll look into making some tweaks at midseason.
Week 1 Situations
**Here is a list of the teams with the best matchups based on Vegas projected totals and stadium, along with the expected kicker for each team. The top five players 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 specifically apply to situations; 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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