- AJ Mass, Fantasy
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While you can't deny the importance of Jason Elam to the Broncos or Adam Vinatieri to the Colts, the fact remains that to a fantasy football player, kickers are merely an afterthought. To someone who doesn't play fantasy football, this may seem strange. After all, a quick glance at the top 25 scoring leaders in the NFL and you can't help but notice the similarity to Fenway Park when Josh Beckett pitches. All those K's lined up in a row! Only the presence of Randy Moss (8th), T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Braylon Edwards (tied for 17th) keep the list from being a kickers-only club.
Of course this isn't truly anything new. Each year from 2004 to '06, 23 of the top 25 scorers were kickers, which was actually up from 20 kickers in the top 25 the previous two seasons. So why, if having a solid kicker seems to be so necessary to NFL teams, do kickers inspire nothing but yawns in fantasy?
First of all, it's the scoring system. In the NFL, if you get into the end zone it's worth six points to your team. A field goal is worth three points. Two field goals equal one touchdown, and each team has only one player who is kicking the ball. He gets all the chances. It's not the same as touchdowns where you have a quarterback, two or three running backs, three to five wide receivers and a couple of tight ends rotating in and out of the lineup all game long. The opportunities for finding pay dirt are a bit more spread out. Kickers, by the very nature of their specialized skill, have better odds at scoring the most points each week.
Compare that to fantasy. While there is no universal scoring system in fantasy football, most leagues give points for yards gained by a player. Let's say every 10 yards is worth one point. Now that 50-yard touchdown pass that is worth six points to an NFL team is worth 11 to a fantasy squad. If Brandon Jacobs rushes for 140 yards, but the Giants get shut out, Tom Coughlin is not a happy camper. However, Brandon's fantasy owner just got 14 points. A kicker would need four field goals and two extra points to match that output. In the NFL, a single extra point from John Kasay, makes the final tally for the week: Kasay 1; Jacobs 0.
It should come as no surprise then that the league's highest-scoring kicker, Rob Bironas, barely cracks the top 50 scorers in most fantasy leagues. What may surprise you is that Bironas is currently owned in only 64.5 percent of ESPN leagues. Even if kickers aren't as valuable as other skills positions, you have to start one in your fantasy football lineup each week. So why on earth wouldn't owners want to have whoever's the "best" at his position? There are two major reasons. First, there's not a lot of difference between the best kicker and the worst kicker. Second, there's no way to accurately predict a kicker's performance from week to week.
In a 12-team league using a fairly standard scoring system, it makes very little difference who your kicker is. This isn't the case at other positions at all.
If you have the league's best quarterback, you're averaging close to a 14-point advantage over the worst team in your league each and every week. And if everybody has two QBs on the roster, the best waiver-wire pickup would be more than 19 points worse than your starting signal-caller. That's huge! Having Tom Brady alone can propel you to a playoff spot. While not as severe, the drop-off in production at running back and wide receiver also makes your ability to evaluate talent at those positions extremely important to your team's success.
Now take a look at the kickers. If you have Bironas, you've had only a two-point edge at kicker over the worst kicker in your 12-team league each week. And if Bironas suddenly got hurt and you needed to replace him off the waiver wire, you'd still be losing an average of only 3.6 points each week. Compare that with the 10-point difference between Shaun McDonald and Randy Moss, and you'll begin to see why fantasy owners simply don't worry about whom they draft as their kickers.
The other reason fantasy owners don't put too much effort into selecting kickers is the complete lack of predictability of their performance in any given week, and I'm not just talking about those off-the-chart games like Bironas' eight field goals against Houston, or Shayne Graham's seven-for-seven last week in Baltimore. Nobody can predict those types of days any more than you could have foreseen Adrian Peterson rushing for 296 against San Diego or Kevin Curtis having 221 receiving yards and three scores against Detroit. The difference is that with other skills positions, you can analyze the matchup and formulate a rough idea of how the day is going to go for your player. With kickers you can't.
If you have two roughly equal quarterbacks, and one is facing Pittsburgh this week, and the other goes up against Minnesota, which one is more likely to have a good day? Yes, on any given Sunday, anything can happen, but odds are that the quarterback facing the Vikings, the league's worst passing defense, will put up better numbers than the one facing the Steelers, the NFL's best. Similarly, a running back facing the Broncos will have a far easier go of it than one up against the Titans. The opponent can have a huge impact on your decision of whom to start or sit.
But this doesn't work for kickers. There's no such thing as a team that "stops the kick" or a matchup that "favors the field goal unit." You might think that you'd want to start the kicker on a team that's going to score a lot of points and avoid the kicker of a team you think will have trouble making even a single first down. Unfortunately, that's not going to guarantee you're going to start the kicker who does the best that week. A team that scores five touchdowns will earn your kicker only five points. A team that can't move the ball inside the opponent's 30-yard line may give that kicker three or four shots at long field goals -- good for 9-12 points (more if your league awards bonuses for longer kicks, as some do). There aren't many teams that have scored fewer points than the Ravens, but there Matt Stover sits, just outside of the top 10, only a kick away from Vinatieri of the Colts' offensive juggernaut
Sure, you can lean toward kickers who are playing indoors and don't have to endure the harsh cold of Green Bay and Buffalo, or the swirling winds of the Meadowlands, but even being in a dome is no guarantee of success. Heck, last week the Saints scored 29 points and Olindo Mare had only one extra point attempt as New Orleans went for the two-point conversion three times. There's no rhyme or reason to it. I know my star running back is going to get in the neighborhood of 25 touches. I know my stud quarterback is going to throw the ball around 30 times. Is my kicker going to see the field? It's completely out of his hands.
So feel free to call this the year of the kicker if you want. I'm still going to be pulling my fantasy team's starting kicker's name out of a hat.
A.J. Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.