Demystifying Kickers & The “Stain” They Are in Fantasy Football

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If Sticking Up for Kickers is Cool, Consider Me Miles Davis…

I get it. Kickers seem like the most fringe part of fantasy to spend time on. At the end of the season, I compile all of my kicking data into the annual 25 Boom Boom Kicker Stats article which often gets met with disdain and an occasional “Do you have a life?”

Over the last few years, throwing shade on kickers became an almost involuntary response for many in the fantasy community. We’ve had a number of commissioner articles on our site I’ve personally edited and published about banning kickers and encouraging leagues to oust them. If your league has already decided to punt our boot-legged friends off a bridge, so be it Baxter. I am not here to try and get your league to reverse its decision nor claim that kicking is the best part of fantasy. Each season-long redraft or dynasty league can create their own settings based upon what they collectively think encourages more fun. (That is what The Fantasy Footballers is all about.)

However, I’d love to offer a little push-back on the common arguments and lack of research given to this typically maniacal, rip-your-hair out fantasy position.

Find out where Andy, Mike, and Jason stand on their 2019 kicker rankings.

Kicker Unpredictability: A Myth?

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The core thesis of booting the kicker is based upon the unpredictability of the position. How many of us ran into a buzzsaw of Kaimi Fairburn’s Week 13 performance last year or rode upon the wings of Adam Vinatieri‘s 22-point explosion a couple of years ago (that’s me!) to victory?

When those moments happen, it can be easy to make a micro problem a macro issue. We all get emotional because we’ve invested time and energy into researching for our fantasy lineups only to let a kicker ruin it for us. There is a major problem with zeroing in on the kicker as the sole problem for winning/losing…

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The other NINE guys you started that week.

There are multiple variables in play each week and to assume that the kicker was the only one to make or break your week is like rejoicing that you’ve disarmed one grenade when there is an entire field of tripwires and landmines in front of you. Every week things change in fantasy.

WRs, the bedrock of PPR scoring, is one of the most volatile week-to-week positions to start. Take, for example, Tyreek Hill, the #1 fantasy WR in 2018. While the finish was incredible, according to our metrics found in the Ultimate Draft Kit, he was the 15th most consistent WR on the season. Here is his weekly output from 2018:

Yes, you started Hill every week. Yes, he exploded for five weeks as a top-3 WR. He also had weeks finishing as the WR54, WR44, and WR49 which absolutely killed your lineup, more so than the kicker who finished with three points.

While this is but one example, we need to take into account there are multiple moving parts each week. Zeroing in on one position as the bane of your fantasy team’s existence fails as a classic example of the fallacy of composition. In other words, the part (a weekly kicking blunder) is extended to the whole.

If you think kicking is bad when it comes to unpredictability, let’s take a look at the other classic fantasy positions that fall under the “onesie” category as popularized by friend of the show J.J. Zachariason, the editor of NumberFire.

Put on Your Onesies

Another major wedge of disagreement for our footed-fiends/friends is what happens at the draft. I’m assuming the kicker you start the season off with is not the kicker you often finish with. Many of the top-12 kickers based on ADP each year finish many spots lower than where they were drafted. In other words, looking at kicker ADP from drafting season and comparing it with the end of the season can be disheartening. When Chris Boswell was supposed to be a surefire thing on a Pittsburgh Steelers offense and basically falls off the rails, you are mad.

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But does this happen at other “onesie” positions?

If we compare QBs with kickers based on ADP, we saw the EXACT same drop off in terms of PPG finish for both positions. Each position “dropped” 7.58 spots in 2018. 

I choose points per game (PPG) as an even better determinant of this to weed out injuries as the main source of this change. While kickers is clearly a streaming position week-to-week, often QB is as well. We bring this up on the show all the time but if we include Week 17, we saw a total number of 41 different QB1s this year. There are only 32 teams in the NFL. There were 18 QBs who had 5 or more top-12 weeks on the season. For kickers, there were 41 different players to successfully kick a FG in 2018. There were 18 kickers who had 6 or more top-10 weeks on the season.

While scoring from these two positions is vastly different and in no way am I trying to compare cross-positionally, we need to point the finger not only at NFL kickers but QBs and most importantly, at ourselves.

In fact, if we look at the classic “onesie” positions, they all experienced fallout from what ADP to what actually occurred in the fantasy arena.

Top-12 TEs dropped an average of 5.5. Other than Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz giving owners a major positional advantage, there was massive unpredictability. Jimmy Graham was a train wreck. Rob Gronkowski wasn’t helpful at all considering his weekly injury updates. Trey Boo-Boo was a giant poo-poo stain. On a points per game basis, the position didn’t deliver much based on our preseason predictions.

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DEF/STs dropped an average of 6 spots. As brought up on the Shocking Stats from 2018 episode, the Bears were the #1 fantasy defense leading the league in DEF/ST touchdowns, interceptions, and fewest points allowed. All of that said, Chicago only beat the #2 DEF by 2 fantasy points per game and the #7-12 defenses were only 4 ppg behind. In fact, over the last 10 seasons, only one overall #1 fantasy defense went on to finish in the top-5 the following season, the 2015-16 Arizona Cardinals. Case in point: the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jags were a massive bust for owners who took them early after an earth-shattering 2017 campaign.

Final verdict: we weren’t great at predicting in fantasy especially at onesie positions in 2018. And to take this a step further, the first part of getting better at fantasy is admitting we don’t know as much as we think we do. We learn, we adjust and we recognize being 51 percent correct is a step in the right direction of a process but it is not the end-all.

The fact kickers are singled out is often more anecdotal than actual.

Looking for Trends in the Right Places

If you choose to venture out on the adventure that is fantasy kicking, here are five helpful hints to get you started:

1. High-volume passing offenses rock for kickers.

The way a kicker piles on the fantasy points is opportunity. Yet, opportunity comes knocking especially with high-powered offenses who aren’t afraid to throw the ball 40+ times a game. If you were to look at last year’s top kickers, you’ll find often they happened to be on teams that were among the league leaders in passing yards per game.

You might be asking yourself: how do passing yards help pace this kicker group ahead of the rest of the pack? Moving the ball through the air has a direct correlation to something we’re chasing when employing the right kicker: FG attempts. Despite all the factors that influence the game flow and field position, you are looking for sheer attempts, which leads to our next point…

2. FG accuracy isn’t the #1 telling factor.

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According to a regression analysis in 2013 investigating the science behind the fantasy kicker, FG accuracy is a less telling fantasy statistic compared to other factors. The study found that total points scored, scoring rank, wins, QB passer rating and QB passing yards all held much more weight in terms of revealing kicker kick-assness in the fantasy football world.

Of the top 12 fantasy kickers from 2017, HALF of them finished outside the top 12 in terms of accuracy. We saw the exact same number in 2018 including our guy Ka’imi Fairbairn finish at 88.1%, 14th best on the season. Honestly, anyone over 82 percent is viable.

3. Vegas lines are your kicker’s best friend.

If you’re not paying attention to Vegas, now is the time to take notice that these lines are extremely valuable for giving us an informed piece of the puzzle. Vegas books live and die by these numbers so this isn’t Jo-Somebody with an internet connection and a Geocities website ready to give their opinion. When Vegas starts drawing totals upwards of 45+, there are points to be scored in bunches. That seemed to be the breaking point last year as you look specifically at favorites on teams with high projected totals. Why pick the favorite? Because what we find is that teams with positive game scripts will often settle for FGs when ahead as opposed to pushing the limits for a TD.

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4. Kickers live and die by 3rd downs.

Another statistic which can lend us some credence towards employing a well-thought-out kicker is the 3rd down percentage. It’s fairly straightforward knowing that the more a drive is extended down the field, the more opportunities there are for teams to put one through the uprights. However, we need to be somewhat tempered as the best offenses often turn 3rd down conversions eventually into visiting the end zone and a kicker receiving 1 point as opposed to 3+.

In 2017, New Orleans led the league at 48.6% on 3rd downs which in turn allowed rookie Wil Lutz to boot his way to a 5th place finish among kickers. Baltimore had the most 3rd down attempts in the league (231) which boded well for the always faithful Justin Tucker, the 2nd overall kicker. The Jets didn’t seem like a very effective offense last year but shockingly had the 6th most third-down attempts in the league. Although their conversion rate ranked fourth worst, it helped Jason Myers finish as the 6th best fantasy kicker. Myers made 6 made FGs beyond 50-yards, which was tied with Brett Maher for most on the season.

5. Put in the research time like any other position.

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While I’m not suggesting you spend your Saturdays weighing out whether Zane Gonzalez or Ryan Succop need to be added to your squads, why not give a little effort?

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