Kicker production is random. Don't let anyone tell you different.
You might think it's mandatory to rush out and grab the kickers associated with the offenses you expect to be of the "high-octane" variety this season. Tell that to Nate Kaeding, who played for the NFL's second-highest-scoring team in 2008 and still finished 14th among kickers in fantasy points. You might think you should stay away from kickers who play for humdrum offenses. Well, tell that to Kris Brown. His Texans finished 17th in the NFL in terms of points, but he wound up the No. 8 fantasy kicker last season. Heck, a year after the Patriots set all sorts of offensive records and Stephen Gostkowski finished tied for 21st in field goals made, Gostkowski became fantasy's No. 1 kicker, while playing for a significantly lower-octane offense. Last year's consensus No. 1 kicker was Nick Folk. He got only 22 attempts all season, 29th in the NFL, and finished the season as fantasy's No. 21 kicker. The No. 2 man on our list was Shayne Graham. He finished as fantasy's No. 30 kicker. It's random.
Don't stress about your kicker. Don't take one before the last round. Don't be afraid to dump a guy who was "supposed" to be good. That's all I can really say about these much-revered big toes. I'm about to make some generalizations about several kicker prospects heading into training camp, but the truth is, it's all stuff and nonsense. Sure, we can try and read the tea leaves about who will wind up with a lot of attempts, and that's what I'll do, But realize that I'm not buying a lot of what I'm selling here.
Stephen Gostkowski gets Tom Brady back to helm his team, which seems as good a reason as any for him to repeat as fantasy's No. 1 kicker. Or is it? With Matt Cassel at the helm, the Patriots stalled more often, and Gostkowski got 40 field goal attempts. The last time Brady was under center for a full season, Gostkowski got only 24. Still, New England should move the ball. The Vikings have the game's most frightening offensive weapon in Adrian Peterson, and if they move the chains as frequently as I think they will, Ryan Longwell should get a chance to keep blasting field goals from deep. He was 6-for-6 from 50-plus yards in '08, setting a Minnesota franchise record. David Akers benefited from the Eagles' abysmal red-zone performance, tying Gostkowski for the most field-goal attempts in the NFL last year. He's not an over-50-yards kicker, but you won't find many more accurate legs on shorter kicks. Nate Kaeding is just about the steadiest kicker around. He usually makes between 85 and 90 percent of his boots every year. Expect his fifth consecutive year of triple-digit points scored. Mason Crosby finished 24th in the NFL last year in field-goal accuracy, a season after being fantasy's top kicker, as a rookie. But he'll continue to get a lot of attempts with Aaron Rodgers running the show in Green Bay.
As I mentioned, Shayne Graham was at least a top-five kicker on every preseason list in existence heading into 2008, but like so many other Bengals options, his season was torpedoed by Carson Palmer's injury. Graham is a tremendous long-distance man, having nailed 50 of 63 career boots between 40 and 49 yards, but while Cincinnati gets its quarterback back in '09, there are too many questions on that offensive line and in the backfield to trust that the Bengals's offense will return to elite status. Jeff Reed probably had the second-most-hilarious offseason of any of the Super Bowl champs (only James Harrison's bizarre White House refusal was more amusing). Reed allegedly went crazy over an empty towel dispenser at a convenience store, and was cited for disorderly conduct. Despite playing for a great team, Reed is perennially overrated as a fantasy kicker. He has never made more than 28 field goals in a season. Phil Dawson was supposed to jump into the fantasy elite, along with the rest of the high-powered Cleveland offense last year. Oops. As the Romeo Crennel house of cards toppled, Dawson's fantasy prospects fell with it. Now he's just another guy. Speaking of "just another guy," someone in your league will probably take Adam Vinatieri in the 11th round, remembering his Super Bowl heroics from years gone by. Don't be that drafter. In three seasons in Indianapolis, Vinatieri has never attempted more than 30 field goals in a season. He had 30 field goals in a season eight times in 10 seasons with New England.
On average, two of the NFL's most pass-oriented offenses, the Broncos and Saints, figure to offer two of the more valuable kicking gigs in the league. Unfortunately, no kicker from either team finished among the top 17 fantasy players at the position last season. Matt Prater is currently Denver's man, but the Broncos brass was frustrated by Prater's inaccuracy as the season wore on. Garrett Hartley took over the New Orleans gig in midstream last year, and went 13-for-13 from Week 10 forward. Both Prater and Hartley will be favored to retain their jobs and perhaps ascend to fantasy relevance, but each team has threatened to bring in camp competition, which makes neither man's job secure. The Buccaneers signed Jets castoff Mike Nugent, who missed most of 2008 because of an injured thigh, but Tampa still also has Matt Bryant on its roster. Bryant finished a respectable 10th among fantasy kickers last year. This figures to be a camp competition, but one wonders if the Bucs would have aggressively gone after a former second-round pick like "The Noodge" if they didn't hope he would win the job. The Seahawks' kicking gig used to be plum, at least when Josh Brown was around, but now the Seattle offense is quite a bit slower and the job is far less exciting. Olindo Mare missed only three kicks for the team last year, but the Seahawks did draft Brandon Coutu in the seventh round of the '08 Draft, and probably want to give the kid a longer look in camp this season.
As I mentioned, Kris Brown finished eighth in fantasy points among kickers last year, but he still doesn't get a lot of rankings love: He's 12th on our list. That probably reflects the risk associated with all Texans offensive players, namely because Matt Schaub will get hurt again. But if Schaub stays healthy (it has to happen sometime), Houston could wind up with one of the league's more impressive pass offenses. That could make Brown a really interesting fantasy starter. The league's other fantasy-relevant kicker named Brown plays for a franchise that went 2-14 last year, and produced only 19 extra-point attempts in the process. But Josh Brown has an elite leg, a steady record of production -- he has never scored fewer than 109 points in a season -- and a dome kicking environment. A slight improvement in the St. Louis offensive fortunes could push this Brown back up the ranks. Lawrence Tynes was supposed to be the Giants' kicker last year, but he needed knee surgery in training camp. His replacement, John Carney, never relinquished the gig. Now Carney is gone from New York, and Tynes gets a potentially plum assignment. We have him ranked 15th because, as always, we fear the Meadowlands wind, but heck, it didn't stop Carney last year. Rian Lindell also has weather problems in his home stadium. He has made 84.2 percent of his road field goal attempts in his career and only 77.3 percent at home, but the addition of Terrell Owens in Buffalo threatens to make the Bills a big-time offense. If that happens, Lindell might improve on the career-high 38 field goals he attempted last season.
Don't waste brain cells thinking about kickers. If your draft features a run on kickers before the last couple rounds: chuckle to yourself, take another flyer on a possible surprise running back or wide receiver and wait. There will never be much difference between the top kicker and the 12th kicker, and it's near impossible to predict which guys will occupy those spots. Take your kicker in the last round. And never take a second kicker. Ever. You can 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 one dollar 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 away any more of your budget to the kicker position.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.