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By the Numbers

Finding Your Fantasy Kicker

by C.D. Carter
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

My brave Sherpa had died, his body swept away by the icy winds howling in every direction. The mountain was biting back, becoming more jagged and steep and ruthless with every step: up, up, to the secret that sat in a gold-encrusted box inside a cave at the top of the rocky beast.

 

I persisted, through pain and numbness, through thinning air and hunger so deep it made me hallucinate about Cam Newton being an every-week fantasy starter. I reached the cave, crawling on my ravaged hands and knees, just as the sun fell below the horizon. I dragged my dying body toward the beautiful golden box sitting in the middle of the cave and with my last burst of energy, flipped it open to reveal…

 

Nothing.

 

I gasped. The Sherpa was wrong. The key to fantasy kicker success was not there. Maybe it never was. Maybe this was the whole point. I collapsed. The wind whipped, more ferocious than ever. I swear I heard it talk: “Gostkowski,” the wind whispered, “and log out.”

 

This, of course, was only my nightmare last Tuesday night. But the search for how we might nail down the kicker position in fantasy football goes on, as it does for every position in this maddening little game.

 

I wrote a weekly kicker column in 2016, harping every week about the best correlations for fantasy kicker point production. Success has nothing to do with a kicker’s accuracy, but rather his opportunity. Good luck forecasting a kicker’s opportunity in a given week. Study Vegas lines, red zone efficiency, home-road splits, opponents’ field goal kicks given up and seven other factors and prepare to swing and miss on a seemingly perfect streaming kicker play.

 

I am by no means eschewing the streaming approach to the kicker position -- a position, by the bye, that is more consistent than receiver, running back and tight end (the position, in my estimation, that should be eliminated from fantasy football via presidential executive order). I’m interested in what to look for if the goal is to draft a kicker and stick with him in good matchups and bad.

 

The annoyance of picking up and dropping kickers -- not to mention the slow drain on a limited free agent auction budget (FAAB) -- isn’t for everyone. My Twitter mentions are filled with two requests during the NFL season: to delete my account, posthaste, and to offer kickers who could or should be viable over the long run.

 

What if a fantasy footballer wants to draft a kicker in the last round of her August draft and be done with it?

 

 

Kickers and the NFL’s Top Passing Offenses

 

I’ll begin this exercise with a look at seasonal performances of kickers from the most potent passing attacks in the NFL. Passing yardage, after all, is much more closely correlated with kicker fantasy points than rushing yardage. The following data is from the past three NFL seasons, with a focus on the top-10 passing teams from each season.

 

The question, put simply: should we draft a kicker based on projections about his offense’s passing production?

Most Passing Yards 2016

 

Team Field goal attempts Kicker fantasy rank
Saints 34 (t-12th) 5th
Washington 42 (1st) 3rd
Falcons 37 (t-6th) 1st
Patriots 32 (t-15th) 10th
Colts 31 (t-18th) 6th
Steelers 28 (t-23rd) 22nd
Packers 30 (t-22nd) 16th
Chargers 32 (t-15th) 17th
Cardinals 28 (t-23rd) 18th
Seahawks 27 (t-6th) 12th

 

Most Passing Yards 2015

 

Team Field goal attempts Fantasy kicker rank
Cardinals 31 (t-15th) 7th
Saints 26 (t-27th) 18th
Steelers 42 (1st) 12th
Seahawks 31 (t-15th) 6th
Bucs 40 (t-2nd) 10th
Patriots 36 (t-7th) 1st
Falcons 31 (t-15th) 31st
Giants 32 (t-11th) 4th
Chargers 32 (t-11th) 18th
Jets 33 (10th) 5th

 

Most Passing Yards 2014

 

Team Field goal attempts Fantasy kicker rank
Colts 31 (t-18th) 3rd
Steelers 32 (t-15th) 11th
Saints 22 (t-29th) 23rd
Broncos 29 (t-22nd) 12th
Falcons 32 (t-15th) 6th
Eagles 36 (7th) 2nd
Giants 26 (t-25th) 13th
Packers 33 (12th) 4th
Patriots 37 (t-4th) 1st
Chargers 26 (t-25th) 21st

 

The short of it: 20 of these 30 teams (66.6 percent) had kickers who finished the season as a top-12 kicker, or a K1 in a 12-team league. Nine of the kickers (30 percent) from these 30 teams ended up as top-five kickers. The top fantasy kicker from each of these seasons can be found among these teams.

 

To put it another way: 30 percent of the kickers listed above finished outside the top-half of fantasy kickers. Many of those options would have been cut-worthy, not exactly a rarity for this position.

 

I’m at least partly pleased by these findings. A slightly closer examination of these top-tier aerial offenses will find that many of the disastrous kicker performances came from bad teams that often faced big deficits. An ocean of bad game script is bad for many fantasy positions, kicker included. 4for4 writer Chris Raybon found a couple years back that kickers on winning teams had a whole lot more field goal attempts than their counterparts on garbage squads.

 

Suffice it to say: that makes sense.

 

The best information is actionable information, data we can use to guide what we do on draft day and beyond. Many of the teams listed above would have been projected to be among the most productive pass offenses in the league. The Patriots, Giants, Packers, Falcons, Saints and Colts (when Andrew Luck is upright): they’re all over the place in the above charts. Of all the processes you could use on fantasy football draft day in selecting a kicker, clicking on a kicker from a solid passing offense would rank among the best.

 

The average field goal attempts among the 30 kicker campaigns listed above is 33, or 2.06 field goal tries per game. That would have ranked 15th in 2016, 11th in 2015 and 12th in 2014. It’s not what I’d deem a gleaming stat, though it’s among the NFL’s top-half kicker opportunity in each of the three seasons. And with kickers, like every other position, opportunity is king. Kiss the ring.

 

Kickers and Yards Per Attempt

 

Now on to teams that posted the highest yards per pass attempt (YPA) over the past three seasons. This measure, per Raybon’s analysis, is a far better predictor of kicker production than total passing production.

 

Highest YPA: 2016

 

Team Field goal attempts Kicker fantasy rank
Falcons 37 (t-6th) 1st
Washington 42 (1st) 3rd
Patriots 32 (t-15th) 10th
Saints 34 (t-12th) 5th
Cowboys 32 (t-15th) 8th
Dolphins 21 (31st) 25th
Seahawks 27 (t-6th) 12th
Chargers 32 (t-15th) 17th
Colts 31 (t-18th) 6th
Steelers 28 (t-23rd) 22nd

 

Highest YPA: 2015

 

Team Field goal attempts Kicker fantasy rank
Cardinals 31 (t-15th) 8th
Steelers 42 (1st) 12th
Seahawks 31 (t-15th) 6th
Bengals 28 (t-21st) 11th
Saints 26 (t-27th) 18th
Washington 30 (t-19th) 12th
Bucs 40 (t-2nd) 10th
Bills 27 (t-23th) 20th
Panthers 36 (t-7th) 2nd
Patriots 36 (t-7th) 1st

 

Highest YPA: 2014

 

Team Field goal attempts Kicker fantasy rank
Cowboys 29 (t-22nd) 6th
Packers 33 (t-12th) 5th
Steelers 32 (t-15th) 11th
Broncos 29 (t-22nd) 13th
Washington 27 (24th) 24th
Seahawks 37 (t-4th) 9th
Colts 31 (t-18th) 3rd
Saints 22 (t-28th) 22nd
Falcons 32 (t-15th) 7th
Chargers 26 (t-25th) 23rd

 

Out of the 30 kickers listed above, 21 (70 percent) finished as a top-12 kicker (K1) over the past three seasons. That’s just slightly better than the K1s that came from the most productive passing attacks from recent seasons.

 

Here’s the issue with basing our kicker preference on YPA: it’s not like projecting total passing production. Many of these teams -- the 2014 Seahawks, the 2015 Bucs, Seahawks and Bengals, and the 2016 Cowboys and Dolphins, for example -- were nowhere close to what one might call elite aerial attacks. These teams were somewhere between efficient and hyper-efficient on a per-pass basis while they didn’t rack up passing yardage, by offensive design or otherwise. An in-depth look at quarterbacks’ YPA -- or adjusted yards per pass attempt -- will offer some guidance about which kickers might benefit from a league leader in yardage on a per-toss basis.

 

TJ Hernandez, the super sharp 4for4.com scribe, showed last offseason that quarterback passing yards per game had the second best year-to-year correlation of all passer stats. Total passing yards on the season had a lower correlation (as you’d expect), but it was still higher than YPA and adjusted yards per attempt, which were way down the list of correlations.

 

Perhaps, in an alternate version of the harrowing trek up the mountain, the golden box sitting in the cave would have contained a note, one that guaranteed nothing, but said, “Learn to stop worrying and get a kicker from a good passing offense.” I might then eat that note because I’m famished. I’d then wonder how I would traverse the mountain without my poor, dispatched Sherpa. After all, fantasy football draft day is six short months away.

C.D. Carter

C.D. Carter is co-host of Living The Stream, owner of DraftDayConsultants.com and author of fantasy football books, including How To Think Like A Fantasy Football Winner. He can be found on Twitter @cdcarter13. He never logs off.