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They're required to be on your roster in almost every scoring format. Yet of all the positions in football, none is as frustrating to forecast as the kicker.
You can't just pick the kicker from the team you expect to lead the league in scoring. Last year, that would have been the New Orleans Saints, who went through three kickers, none of whom placed in the top 30 in fantasy scoring. As I always like to point out, if an NFL team scores 42 points, the kicker usually will get six of them. Meanwhile, a much poorer offense might end up with only six points on two field goals, but that still could earn their kicker just as many points, if not more, based on bonuses for longer kicks.
But that doesn't mean you should grab the kicker from the lowest-scoring offenses either. In 2008, that strategy may have offered you the choice between St. Louis' Josh Brown and Cleveland's Phil Dawson. Brown finished tied for 11th overall, while Dawson was way down on the list at No. 22. There simply seems to be no rhyme or reason, no method to the madness of selecting a successful kicker. It's why most experts won't even try to figure it out. "Pick a name out of a hat" has as much chance of being a winning strategy as any other, it seems.
Certainly, on draft day, there's very little to go on when trying to figure out which kicker to draft (hopefully in the final round). Certainly, you might want to avoid those kickers who have "competition" entering training camp, those who have had difficulty being accurate from long range, or kickers who have not done well in late-game pressure situations. But the biggest factor in whether or not a certain kicker is going to be more valuable than any other comes down to two things: opportunity and converting those opportunities.
To that end, what we attempted to do was to see if we couldn't quantify "opportunity." What measurable statistics go into whether or not a coach will call for the field goal unit, versus calling for the punter or "going for it" on fourth down? And once we've figured that out, is there any correlation to be found with the fantasy football points earned by the kickers playing for the teams we deem to have provided the most opportunity?
Without looking at the stats themselves and trying to come up with a stat that perfectly matches the final-season results of last season, we simply thought out loud as to what we thought "sounded right" when it came to figuring out what might maximize a kicker's fantasy opportunity. As we've already mentioned, points scored doesn't work, but it makes sense that a team needed to at least get into field goal range in order for the kicker to have any chance at seeing the field. So an offense's yards per game is certainly important, but so is the total number of first downs per game. A team that gets a lot of first downs is actually more likely to kick field goals than score touchdowns, since they're probably efficient, yet not explosive, when it comes to moving the ball.
The next stat we want to consider is third-down percentage. The more drives that get extended, the more likely a team is to score. Of course, you don't want to weight this stat too heavily, since at some point those kicking opportunities become one-pointers as opposed to those of the three-point variety. Finally, we want to look at the number of times the team "goes for it" on fourth down. This number is a huge negative, since not only does it keep the kicker off the field, but also might speak to the coach's confidence in his kicker, or it possibly could indicate that the team is down by a whole heap of points, also not a good sign when it comes to field goal chances.
We took all these stats and culled them into a single ranking of all 32 NFL teams, based on the final 2008 regular-season stats. We've included points per game in this chart to show you the very loose correlation between that stat and our final results. The entire list is as follows:
Now before we go comparing this list to the final kicker rankings from 2008 to see how well it tracks, we first must determine whether fantasy football points are the only factor we are going to use to determine whether this "opportunity" ranking is valid. After all, if a kicker isn't good enough to make the most of his opportunities, that doesn't mean the statistic has failed in its attempt to determine who had the best chance at fantasy success. So, we're going to give each kicker a rating that combines three key factors: the number and type of kicks (field goals or extra points) that he did make, the number of kicks he could have made if he had been perfect on the year, and the accuracy of his kicks the longer his field goal attempts got. This rating should provide a balance between the number of opportunities a team provided its kicker, the accuracy of the kicker, and the strength of the kicker's leg, which in turn should yield more chances at "bonus points" which will vary depending upon your league's chosen scoring system. Here are the top 10 kickers for 2008, according to this rating system:
So how does the rankings list compare to our "Opportunity" stat? Let's take a side-by-side look.
Using our new "Opportunity Rating" as a guide, we've accurately projected 10 of the top 13 most valuable fantasy kickers. Where did we go wrong? Well, the Saints appear to be a huge miss, but it's not looking nearly as bad if you were to combine the efforts of Garrett Hartley, Taylor Mehlhaff and Martin Gramatica together into one kicker. At that point, as a combined trio, they move into 17th place overall. That's still not in the top 10, but it would have been if either of the team's first two kickers had made just half of the kicks they missed. Plus, consider the fact that Hartley played only the last eight games of the season, and was perfect over that stretch. Double his individual score to cover an entire season and he would have been fourth overall in our rankings. That's no longer a miss in our book.
Matt Prater missed nine field goals over the season, and from Week 9 on, there was only one week in which he didn't miss at least one kick, including a failed extra point in Week 17. If Prater had been successful on only six of those nine failed three-pointers, he would have easily been in the top 10. So this failure is to be blamed on the Denver kicker himself, and not our statistical analysis. The opportunity was there. He just didn't seize it. As for Adam Vinatieri of the Colts, well, that's a clear miss. He finished 25th in our kicker ratings and even an unblemished résumé (he had five missed field goals) would have only brought him as high as 17th overall. Of course, Indianapolis was an incredible 50 percent on converting third downs, which certainly inflated its ranking, but we still can't "spin" our way out of this failure.
As for the three kickers who defied our expectations, all three came from teams in the top 20 of the Opportunity Rankings. Tennessee's Rob Bironas' incredibly strong leg (62 percent accuracy from 50-plus yards) was the difference-maker, and in a league without bonus points for longer field goals, he falls well out of the top 10. Matt Bryant of the Bucs overcame a tremendous off-field tragedy to have a career year for an offense that went through numerous personnel changes all season long and never quite found its rhythm. As for Minnesota's Ryan Longwell, he took advantage of a Vikings offense that has incredible difficulty getting the ball in the end zone from inside the red zone, and also was 6-for-6 from 50-plus last season. Perhaps he's the exception to the rule that proves this system to be valid.
What's the upshot of all this? Sure, the sample size on this is incredibly small, but it's a solid starting point, and while on draft day there's still no surefire way of predicting kicker performance, we've already shown you can do better than simply closing your eyes and throwing a dart at a list. Look at our opportunity rankings based on last year's stats and see what teams you think will do better in the categories we're using to create our rating.
Chicago, with Jay Cutler at the helm, should do far better in yards gained and third-down percentage, perhaps enough to make Robbie Gould a solid selection, while the Jets aren't as likely to climb into the "opportunity elite" with a far less experienced quarterback in the huddle in 2009. By keeping tabs on these stats as the season moves along, however, you'll be in a far better position to claim the best available kicker from the waiver wire each week and a lot more confident to cut a Sebastian Janikowski or a Josh Scobee when the numbers indicate they're simply not going to get the chance to turn things around after a rocky start.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.