Drafting a kicker in fantasy football is typically an afterthought. And it should be that way. Most serious fantasy players understand that the kicker position typically doesn’t make or break a season, and there are always a surplus of them that you can grab off the waiver wire when needed. Here at The Renaissance Fan we have done analyses that confirm it to be the least important position on your fantasy football team. But that doesn’t mean it has zero importance. Some kickers score more points than others, and if you can get one of those players on your fake team you will have an edge, however slight it may be. But determining which kicker is best in fantasy football isn’t necessarily an easy question to answer, largely because so much of a kicker’s success depends on factors that are outside their control. Unlike a quarterback or number one running back who will both get plenty of chances each game to produce, kickers may be limited to just a handful of chances, or sometimes none at all.
We decided to do an in-depth analysis of the factors affecting kicker performance in fantasy football. The alternate title of this article might be “A Guide For Your Last Pick in Your Fantasy Football Draft”. It’s not the most important decision you will make, and we will certainly not guarantee a championship based on decisions you might make at the kicker position after reading this. But hey, you never know. In the game of fantasy football, every point matters.
To look at this question we downloaded fantasy football data for kickers from the last 5 season (2011-2015, standard scoring format, no penalties for misses). We excluded any kickers that didn’t play a full season. We then went out and grabbed data on a variety of other factors that we thought might be important in determining the success of one kicker compared to another. Those factors are: total field goals attempted, total extra points attempted, field goal percentage, yards per game for each kicker’s team (by season), whether the kicker plays most of their games in a dome or an open air field, and the red zone conversion percentage (TD only) of the kicker’s team.
Is There a Dome Effect for Kickers?
One piece of conventional wisdom pushed by draft gurus is that weather has a big effect on kicker success, which would give kickers who play more games in a dome a big advantage. I have personally subscribed to this theory in the past and targeted guys like Matt Bryant (ATL) and Blair Walsch (IND). This theory just makes so much sense as you sit on your warm couch in November and watch guys struggling to kick in swirling winds at a place like Soldier Field.
Which is why I was particularly surprised to find out that the dome effect is baloney.
When we broke down all the kickers from the last 5 years and looked at the average points scored for those who play home games in domes versus those in open air, the dome kickers as a group actually came out with a slightly (though not statistically) lower average point total than their open air kicking counterparts!
So it appears you can forget about where kickers play their home games.
Red Zone Strugglers
Here’s the next piece of advice that seems to be pushed around without much data to back it up: get a kicker on a team with a bad red zone offense. Once again, the logic is simple: if you get a kicker on a team that routinely stalls their drives around the 15-yard line, they will have to settle for a bunch of field goals.
So, to evaluate that theory we used linear regression to compare fantasy production (total points per season) against the red zone conversion percentage (TD only) for the kicker’s team. And once more, the results may surprise:
Over the last 5 seasons kickers on teams with low red zone conversion efficiency score slightly less points than kickers on teams with high conversion efficiency. It appears that any slight advantage that might have been gained by a few extra opportunities on failed drives is more than canceled out by the fact that teams with poor red zone offense are usually not that capable on offense overall, which as you will see in a moment has a much bigger impact on overall opportunities. So here’s another piece of draft advice that you can toss out the window.
Kicking Well Helps, But Kicking Often is Better
Does the actual skill of a kicker matter that much? Each kicker only gets so many chances to score per game or per season. So what happens when we look at field goal percentage compared to fantasy points? As it turns out, there is a strong positive relationship between the two. Kickers that have a higher percentage do score more points:
And you could imagine how that might create a positive feedback loop, particularly for long kicks. Reliable (high percentage) kickers might be given more chances by a coach, particularly in instances when the team is sitting at the edge of field goal range. But kicking often is still better than kicking well. The relationship is very strong between total attempts and overall fantasy production for kickers:
The difference in field goal percentage between the best kicker in the league and the worst is really not that much (most kickers fall in the 75-90% range). The number of attempts some kickers get in comparison to others is a much wider gap with some kickers getting nearly twice as many chances as others, and it is this difference that drives greater fantasy production from some players compared to others (the 52 attempts you see in the upper right of the figure above is from David Akers kicking for San Francisco in 2011). So if you are faced with a choice between two kickers, one of which puts it through 98% of the time but only takes 25 attempts, and one who connects only 70% of the time yet gets 45 attempts, you go with the high volume guy every time (unless your league has a stiff penalty for misses).
Good Supporting Offense or Defense?
So if we know that kicker production is all about attempts, the obvious question is “What is the best predictor of field goal attempts”? Another reasonable hypothesis is that a good defense leads to more field goal attempts. The rationale is relatively simple: teams with good defenses are rarely trailing by large amounts where they would be forced to chase touchdowns, and thus be less likely to settle for field goals. To examine defense as a factor influencing kicker production we compared kicker fantasy points with their team’s overall defense (measured as points allowed per game):
As it turns out, there is a pattern here. Teams that allow less points per game tend to also have kickers with higher fantasy production. Are there any similar patterns related to offense? We already know that red zone offense isn’t really a factor. But what about offense overall? As a simple measure of the offensive productivity of each kicker’s team we looked at average yards per game and compared that to kicker fantasy production:
As it turns out, there is a very strong effect. In fact, of all the factors we have looked at thus far (excluding attempts), the offensive yards per game of a kicker’s team is the best predictor of fantasy production. Steven Gostkowski, of the offensive powerhouse New England Patriots, has led in fantasy production for the last three seasons. The next highest scoring kickers over the last few years have also come from offensively prolific teams like Denver, Philadelphia, and New Orleans.
So how do you draft your kicker?
Here are some relatively simple guidelines based on our analysis that you can take with you into the draft room:
- Forget about where the kicker plays most of their games. There’s not much to it.
- Don’t get cute with complex stats like red zone conversion efficiency. Low red zone conversion is more likely a sign of a bad offensive team than a good situation for a kicker.
- Don’t worry if your kicker is actually “good”. It’s all about attempts.
- Attempts are the product of good offense and, to some extent, good defense. So your objective should be relatively simple: find a kicker on a good football team and leave it at that. Don’t overthink this minor decision.