Trying to predict kicker performance

Updated: June 22, 2012, 1:02 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

They're required to be on your roster in almost every scoring format. Yet of all the positions in football, none is as frustrating to forecast as the place-kicker. After all, you can't just pick the kicker from who you expect to be the highest-scoring team in the league.

Last year, that would have been the Green Bay Packers, but Mason Crosby didn't finish first in fantasy scoring for kickers. Those honors went to David Akers, whose San Francisco 49ers were only the 11th-best offense in terms of putting up points. Crosby, who had 10 games with either zero or one field goal, managed to finish only as high as sixth place.

As I always like to point out, if an NFL team scores 42 points -- the kicker usually will get six of them. Meanwhile, a much poorer offense might end up with only six points on two field goals, but that still could earn their kicker just as many points, if not more, based on bonuses for longer kicks.

Of course, that doesn't mean you should grab the kicker from the lowest-scoring offenses, either. In 2008, that strategy may have offered you the choice between the St. Louis Rams' Josh Brown and the Kansas City Chiefs' Ryan Succop. Brown finished 31st overall, while Succop was only marginally better at No. 28.

There simply seems to be no rhyme or reason, no method to the madness of selecting a successful kicker. It's why most experts won't even try to figure it out. "Pick a name out of a hat" has as much chance of being a winning strategy as any other, it seems.

Certainly, on draft day, there's very little to go on when trying to figure out which kicker to draft (hopefully in the final round). Certainly, you may want to avoid those kickers who have "competition" entering training camp, those who have had difficulty being accurate from long range, or kickers who have not done well in late-game pressure situations. But the biggest factor in whether or not a certain kicker is going to be more valuable than any other comes down to two things: opportunity and converting those opportunities.

To that end, what I'm attempting to do is to see if we can quantify that elusive "opportunity." What measurable statistics go into whether or not a coach will call for the field goal unit, versus calling for the punter, or "going for it" on fourth down? And once we've figured that out, is there any correlation to be found with the fantasy football points earned by the kickers playing for the teams we deem to have provided the most opportunity?

What is Opportunity?

Without looking at the stats themselves and trying to come up with a stat that perfectly matches the final results of last season, I simply thought out loud as to what I thought "sounded right" when it came to figuring out what might maximize a kicker's fantasy opportunity.

As I've already mentioned, points scored doesn't work, but it makes sense that a team needed to at least get into field goal range in order for the kicker to have any chance at seeing the field. So an offense's yards per game (YPG) is certainly important, but so is the total number of first downs per game. A team that gets a lot of first downs is more likely to kick field goals than to score touchdowns, since they're probably efficient, yet not explosive, when it comes to moving the ball.

The next stat to consider is third-down conversion percentage. The more drives that get extended, the more likely a team is to score, though of course, you don't want to weigh this stat too heavily, since at some point, those kicking opportunities become one-pointers as opposed to those of the three-point variety.

Finally, it makes sense to look at the number of times the team "goes for it" on fourth down. This number is a huge negative, since not only does it keep the kicker off the field, but also may speak to the coach's confidence in his kicker or possibly indicate that the team is down by a whole heap of points, also not a good sign when it comes to field goal chances.

Taking all of these stats, I've compiled them into a single ranking of all 32 NFL teams, based on the final 2011 regular season stats. Points per game, though not part of the equation, are nevertheless included in this chart to show you the very loose correlation between that stat and our final results.

How Should We Judge Kickers?

Now before we go comparing this list to the final kicker rankings from last season to see how well it tracked, we first must determine whether fantasy football points are the only factor we are going to use to determine whether this "opportunity" ranking is valid. After all, if a kicker isn't good enough to make the most of his opportunities, that doesn't mean the statistic has failed in its attempt to determine who had the best chance at fantasy success.

So, we're going to give each kicker a rating that combines three key factors: the number and type of kicks (FG or XP) that he did make, the number of kicks he could have made if he had been perfect on the year, and the accuracy of his kicks the longer his field goal attempts got. This rating should provide a balance between the number of opportunities a team provided its kicker, the accuracy of the kicker and the strength of the kicker's leg (the "40+" category below designates field goals made of 40 or more yards), which in turn should yield more chances at "bonus points," which will vary depending upon your league's chosen scoring system.

Here are the top 10 kickers for 2011, according to this rating system:

The Moment of Truth

So, how does the rankings list compare to our "opportunity" stat? Let's take a side-by-side look:

Using our new "Opportunity Rating" as a guide, we've accurately projected nine of the top 13 most valuable fantasy kickers. Where did we go wrong? Alex Henery of the Philadelphia Eagles finished 14th, just off of this list. Not too bad of a miss there. Buffalo ended up using both Rian Lindell and Dave Rayner after Lindell got hurt halfway through the season. Before his injury, though, he was well on pace to finish in the top 10. So, we're not willing to call either of those two complete misses.

Olindo Mare and Lawrence Tynes were disappointments, but retrospectively, if we had used "opportunity" as a guide on draft day, we would have definitely increased our chances at ending up with one of the better kickers than if we had simply thrown those proverbial darts.

Sure, we would have missed out on the eventual top option, David Akers, but we also would have avoided the likes of disappointing Ryan Succop and Josh Brown. We're talking about maximizing our chances of success. There's not a statistic that will ever be created that will be a 100 percent guarantee at predicting the future.

With that in mind, let's see if we can't project ahead to 2012 and take a stab at which teams should end up with the most opportunity for their kickers. I've projected all of the necessary stats for the 2012 season in order to come up with an "Opportunity" rating. Not every one of the names on this list will live up to the expectations, but wouldn't you rather throw those darts with your eyes wide open than while wearing a blindfold?