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Are kickers random? Well, not entirely. There's some correlation between the best NFL offenses and the best place-kickers for fantasy:
But the San Francisco 49ers were 26th in yards from scrimmage last year, and yet David Akers finished first among fantasy kickers by a huge margin. In general, trying to get the bootsmen from the best offenses seemed to make vaguely good sense in 2011, but perhaps it's even better to find a squad that plays well between the 20s, but then bogs down in the red zone. Of course, I don't exactly know how you predict something like that.
The larger point to be made about fantasy kickers -- and the reason you shouldn't consider taking one before the very end of your draft -- is that the difference between them tends to be microscopic. Yes, Akers scored 182 fantasy points last year, and nobody else eclipsed 150. But No. 2 and No. 13 on the kicker rolls were separated by just 19 fantasy points, or about 1.2 points per week. And that's to say nothing of game-to-game variability; the top 10 fantasy kickers from '11 amassed six fantasy points or fewer in 26.4 percent of their starts.
In other words: Don't stress about your kicker. Don't be afraid to dump a guy who was "supposed" to be good. (Nick Folk and Josh Brown were top-six kickers in '10 and fell off the map last year.) Don't be afraid to pounce on a guy you think plays for a miserable team, but who has started the year hot. (I assume not too many folks had faith in Dan Bailey last summer, but he wound up just fine as a free-agent find.) Let's take a look at the kicker landscape for '12, but let's not fall in love with anyone, shall we?
Stephen Gostkowski has been a top-six fantasy kicker in four of the past five seasons, and in the other, he missed half the season with a torn quad. It's never a bad thing to be Tom Brady's caddie, but even in the year Brady was hurt ('07), Gostkowski was fantasy money. There are absolutely no guarantees when it comes to this position, but if I had one kicker to pick, it'd be Gostkowski. Mason Crosby is held somewhat hostage by the Green Bay Packers' ultra-efficient offense, as he finished 20th in field goal attempts in a season when the Pack featured a dominating offense. But he also had 68 extra points, most in the NFL. I'll admit that David Akers does make me a bit nervous. Not his actual kicking, which is terrific: The dude made seven boots from 50-plus yards in '11. But relying on the 49ers' offense to melt down in the red zone week after week is a little gnarly. Still, in his first season after leaving the Philadelphia Eagles, Akers had 11 more field goal attempts than anyone else in the NFL. Sebastian Janikowski was fantasy's No. 1 bootsman in '10 and finished tied for third last season. Of course, he also didn't top 100 actual points scored from '05 to '09, so it's absolutely possible for him to be limited if the Oakland Raiders' offense regresses. The good thing about Sea-Bass, of course, is he's worth just a touch more in fantasy leagues that award bonus points for longer kicks. Garrett Hartley missed all of '11 with a hip injury, and in his pro career he's also been suspended for using a banned stimulant. Certainly the facts that he kicks for the New Orleans Saints' terrific offense and has a dome for his home field make him attractive, and he should be a fantasy starter in all leagues. But boy, we'd sure like to see Hartley hang in there for the full 16 one of these years.
Nate Kaeding tore his left ACL on the season's first kickoff last season and missed the entire year, which was quite a blow for the consensus top pick at this position. He's healed now, and could still beat out Nick Novak for the San Diego Chargers' starting gig, but remember that of this duo, Kaeding is the one who makes a bunch of money ($2 million this season). Plus, are we sure that the Chargers are still the explosive offensive team we remember from years past? I'm not saying Kaeding is unownable, but he's certainly fallen from the top spot, and until he officially wins the job, he's better left as a potential midseason replacement. Adam Vinatieri has produced one decent fantasy season in his six seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, and Peyton Manning isn't coming back. Instead, Andrew Luck leads a rebuilding Indy squad, and that probably won't be pretty for the 39-year-old kicker. Ryan Longwell was too expensive for the rebuilding Minnesota Vikings to pay, and he got the boot (get it?) this winter in favor of rookie Blair Walsh. Don't rule out the possibility that Longwell earns a camp job somewhere, but it's doubtful he'll land in a spot likely to provide much fantasy value.
The Washington Redskins haven't exactly been a bastion of kicking excellence over the past several years, including '11, when Graham Gano finished third worst in field goal accuracy. But Gano did wind up with the second-most field goal attempts in the NFL last season, and I don't completely dismiss Robert Griffin III's arrival in D.C. as a positive factor for the entire Skins offense. Plus Neil Rackers, late of the Houston Texans, will be in competition with Gano in training camp. The winner (I expect it will be Rackers) could become a fantasy sleeper. Meanwhile, in Houston, rookie Randy Bullock was selected in the fifth round of April's draft, and should have the inside track for a Texans kicking gig that allowed Rackers to have the third-most field goal attempts in the league last year. However, Shayne Graham will be on hand this summer in case Bullock can't handle the job, and Texans coaches have proclaimed that they'll go with the guy who boots it best in camp. The St. Louis Rams let Josh Brown go because of his big contract, and the New York Jets swooped in to provide Nick Folk some legit camp competition. The Jets haven't produced a strong fantasy kicker in a couple seasons and the "ground-and-pound" philosophy doesn't sound promising for an elite number of attempts in '12. But I do expect that Brown will finally unseat the mediocre Folk, who has converted only 72.8 percent of his attempts over the past three seasons combined.
Jason Hanson is 42 and entering his 21st pro season, so injuries could be a factor. Plus, even kicking for a suddenly elite Detroit Lions offense last year, Hanson "only" finished tied for 12th among fantasy kickers. Still, I'm sure the Lions would argue that their offense will get even more explosive in '12, and that would mean good things for Hanson. For sure, you have to love those indoor environs in Detroit. Connor Barth got a relatively big contract from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this spring, and in the first 12 games of '11, he was actually a very serviceable fantasy bootsman. However, the wheels fell off for the entire Bucs squad thereafter, and Barth sank as well, finishing just 18th at his position. Yes, quite a few things would have to turn around for Tampa to suddenly promote its kicker to every-week-starter status. But at least we know Barth has a decent deep leg and improved accuracy (he made 26 of 28 attempts last year), in case Josh Freeman & Co. get their acts together. The Rams will replace Josh Brown with Greg Zuerlein, a rookie out of Missouri Western. If Sam Bradford stays upright and healthy, we've seen that his team's kicker can produce, as Brown did in '10, and again, the indoor field helps. Of course, when things don't go well for Bradford and the rest of the offense, we've seen how ugly it can get for the kicker: Brown torpedoed all the way down to 31st among fantasy kickers in '11, despite not missing a game.
Don't waste too many brain cells thinking about kickers. If your draft features a run on kickers before the final couple of rounds, chuckle to yourself, take another flier on a possible surprise running back or wide receiver, and wait. There will rarely be very much difference between the top kicker and the 10th kicker (obviously, '11 was an exception), plus it's tough to predict which guys will occupy those spots on a weekly basis. Take your kicker in the last round. And never take a second kicker. Ever. You'll work out your bye-week issues later.
It doesn't matter when in your auction you get your kicker. Just make sure you don't pay more than $1 for him. If somebody wants to bump up one of the "elites" at this position to more money than that, nod graciously and bow out. There's absolutely no reason to leech any more of your budget to the kicker position.