Commentary

When to draft a tight end, defense and kicker

Updated: June 17, 2008, 2:15 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

There's a general consensus among fantasy football experts, and it goes something like this: You draft your kicker in the last round and not one pick sooner. As for defenses and tight ends, you can select them a bit earlier if you're seeking "sure things."

But when really is the right time? At what point in the draft should you break the ice on those positions without risking both ridicule and ruin? Why exactly do all the experts say to hold off? Is there an actual reason to wait on these positions, or is this just superstition? Lots of questions, lots of answers. Let's try and take a completely dispassionate look at this subject and see if we can't play "Mythbusters" to this widely held belief.

20/20 Hindsight

First let's try an experiment. We're going to do some mock drafts for the 2007 season -- today. That's right, we're going to divvy up the players for a 10-team league, using a fairly standard scoring system (6 points each for rushing/receiving TDs, 4 points for passing TDs, 1 point per 25 yards passing, 1 point for 10 yards rushing or receiving, etc.) armed with the knowledge that we know for sure how many points each player will give us for the season.

In our first mock draft, when each team's pick comes around, the owner will simply select whatever available player scored the most points in 2007. Each team will fill a starting lineup only, consisting of one quarterback, two running backs, three wide receivers and one player each at tight end, kicker and team defense. If the highest-scoring available player won't fit it their starting lineup, they'll take the first player on the list of scoring leaders who does. So, given his unconscious season, Tom Brady becomes the first player taken, LaDainian Tomlinson goes second, and so on, until all 10 teams have selected a complete nine-player starting lineup that optimizes each owner's perfect predictive abilities. Drafting in this fashion yields the following draft breakdown:

2007 Hindsight Mock Draft (active roster)
Position Avg. draft spot High
QB 1.3 1
RB1 2.5 1
WR1 3.0 1
RB2 4.0 3
WR2 4.8 3
K 6.2 5
TE 7.2 4
WR3 7.4 6
D/ST 8.5 8

Based on the actual value of each player to his fantasy team, we can see that team defenses provided the least value, and should have been waited on the longest. Surprisingly, though, kickers started to go as early as Round 5, and by the end of Round 7, all 10 teams had drafted a kicker. Wide receivers such as Chris Chambers, Andre Johnson and Donald Driver, who simply didn't put up big final numbers, were all taken after kickers. Meanwhile, four teams waited until their final pick to draft a tight end.

This hasn't debunked the "draft a kicker last" theory just yet, but it certainly does begin to put a ceiling on when the absolutely earliest time to select one is. But most leagues don't draft just a starting lineup -- there's a bench to think about as well. So let's see how much the numbers change if we were to change the rules of our Hindsight League draft to fit a roster consisting of two quarterbacks, four running backs, six wide receivers, two tight ends and one player each at kicker and team defense. The results are as follows:

2007 Hindsight Mock Draft (full roster)
Position Avg. draft spot High
QB1 1.5 1
RB1 2.5 1
QB2 4.0 2
WR1 4.4 1
WR2 6.1 2
RB2 6.4 3
K 7.6 6
RB3 8.4 5
WR3 8.7 5
TE1 10.2 5
RB4 10.6 6
WR4 11.4 6
D/ST 11.7 9
WR5 13.0 9
WR6 14.6 11
TE2 14.8 8

Allowing teams to stock their benches before completing a starting lineup does change things a bit, but kickers are still being taken, on average, before the final starting wide receiver. Tight ends lose about three rounds of value when you factor in the backups, and it's obvious that the backup tight end is little more than an afterthought. So it seems that given the value of having the best kicker versus having the best fourth running back, it would make sense to jump the gun and use an early pick on a kicker, wouldn't it? As Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast, my friend!" There's far more to the story.

The Fallacy of Hindsight

It's easy to look back at the end of a season and note that the top kickers were all worth a sixth- or seventh-round pick. But sitting there on draft day, are you able to tell me which kickers will be the ones at the top of the scoring list? Most people would have thought Adam Vinatieri, Jeff Wilkins and Nate Kaeding were pretty much sure things for the 2007 season. They certainly were ranked high enough. But guess what? None of these three kickers managed to finish in the top 10 in scoring in standard scoring systems, and Wilkins didn't even reach the top 20. As for the actual kicking leaders? Who would have expected Mason Crosby, Rob Bironas and Nick Folk to be the three most valuable kickers in 2007?

Mason Crosby
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireWho would have guessed some rookie kicker named Mason Crosby would lead the NFL in scoring.
Okay, so let's say you did somehow tap into mystical forces and determine that Mason Crosby was the right kicker to select. But was he truly worth a sixth-round pick, even if you did know for certain that he'd score more than any other player you could have picked at that slot? The answer is still a resounding no! Let's assume it's Round 6 of your draft and every team has selected one quarterback, two running backs and two wide receivers. It's your pick.

Plenty of good options available to you here. You can select a backup quarterback such as Jay Cutler, Jon Kitna, Eli Manning or David Garrard. Or perhaps a backup running back such as Chester Taylor, Thomas Jones, Reggie Bush or Laurence Maroney. Maybe a third wide receiver like Joey Galloway, Andre Johnson, Shaun McDonald or Dwayne Bowe. Or, finally, a starting tight end such as Jason Witten or Antonio Gates. Then there's Crosby. Again, this assumes the players drafted to this point would ultimately end up being the highest scorers for the year. But it is actually far more likely that some of these running backs and wide receivers were already drafted, based on expectations, and that players who ended up being even more valuable to own, such as Wes Welker and Greg Jennings, or Ryan Grant and Kenny Watson would still be available here.

How can you take Crosby here? What would you lose by waiting? Let's say you decided to wait until the last pick to get your kicker, and based on your brilliant clairvoyance, you accurately select the 10th-best kicker (although you'd probably end up with a higher-scoring kicker since not everyone in your league is as psychic as you, right?). Take a look at this list, using 2007 statistics:

Mason Crosby, Packers: 156
Rob Bironas, Titans: 150
Nick Folk, Cowboys: 142
Josh Brown, Seahawks: 141
Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots: 140
Jason Hanson, Lions: 139
Robbie Gould, Bears: 138
Shayne Graham, Bengals: 136
Kris Brown, Texans: 132
Phil Dawson, Browns: 129

What do you risk by waiting to draft the No .10 kicker? Twenty-seven points over 16 weeks. That's all. And if you somehow ended up with the 20th highest-scoring kicker, Sebastian Janikowski, that would only cost you an additional 13 points over the season. So we're talking about risking a sixth-round draft pick on, at most, 2.5 points per week. Meanwhile, let's say in our Hindsight League that everybody else decides to draft two running backs over the next two rounds before the pick gets back to you. Here's what would happen:

Best RB at Round 6, Pick 1: Chester Taylor, 154.5 points
Best RB at Round 7, Pick 10: Travis Henry, 99.6.

Even though it's just a few running back selections, that's a difference of almost 55 points for the season, or close to 3.5 points per week. The difference might be only one point, but remember, this would be your backup running back. If you had, in reality, spent an early draft pick on Shaun Alexander last season, chances are good you would have had to use Chester Taylor. Which is more valuable? To have a Taylor or Maurice Morris step in and recover those 10-12 points per week Alexander's injury or ineffectiveness has caused you, or is it better to have that 2.5-point maximum cushion you would have gotten at kicker? The kicker reward is simply never going to be worth the risk of not drafting a solid backup RB, even if you could guarantee the reward. And remember that we're talking about a 10-team league. If you're in a 12-team league, the hit for jumping on a kicker too soon is even greater because of the lack of depth at the skill positions.

Break Points

So when is the right time to pick each position? The following table can help us figure this out once and for all.

Value by position
Position Avg. Top 20 Break Point
QB 226.7 9
RB 196.5 7
WR 179.8 9
K 130.7 9
D/ST 96.3 8
TE 95.1 7

The "break point" indicates the number of players at that position that must be selected before you find yourself below the average for the top 20 at that position. In other words, you drop below the top-20 average after only seven tight ends, meaning there are fewer top tight ends and running backs than there are top quarterbacks or kickers. However, the points you likely will get from your top quarterback are far greater than the number of points you likely will get from your tight end, making it important to grab your starting quarterback earlier, rather than later. Combining the value of each position with the break point, the best strategy -- or so it would seem to me -- would be to wait on your kickers, team defenses and tight ends longer than the other positions, since those three positions simply won't help you as much over the course of a season, even if you do manage to get lucky and grab the best option at each category.

The low break point at running back is the primary reason why most teams pick a back with their top draft choice. While on average they might not score as much as quarterbacks, the dropoff in quality from the top options and even the mid-level options is much greater. Plus, if the top six picks are all running backs, it is far more important to grab a running back on the right side of the break point, rather than a quarterback, a position in which you can still wait for eight names to be taken off the board to strike. Similarly, even though kickers might score more than defenses or tight ends, I'd grab a tight end first of that trio because of the low break point. However, if that top batch of seven players passes by in an unexpected run, I'm then happy to select nothing but extra wideouts and backs and wait until the final few rounds to grab a tight end. That's what the numbers say I should do.

Every draft is different

In the end, there's no hard or fast rule on what position should be taken in what spot. For instance, if you think Tom Brady repeats his 2007 numbers in 2008, you'd be a fool not to select him as early as possible. However, even if you think Mason Crosby, the Chargers' defense or Jason Witten is sure to outperform all others at their position, that doesn't mean you grab them early just so you can say you got them. That kind of thinking is sure to be your downfall.

Tony Gonzalez
Josh Umphrey/Getty ImagesTony Gonzalez is still a top option, and he can be had later than top options at other positions.
In a 10-team league with a 16-round draft, the best time to grab a top-flight tight end is simply before the position reaches the Break Point above. It's OK to pass on Witten by not selecting him in Round 5. There's still Antonio Gates and Chris Cooley, Kellen Winslow and Tony Gonzalez to be had. Let someone else sacrifice at the altar of jumping the gun. Sit back and bolster your bench, and if the seal is still intact in Round 10, then be my guest.

As for kickers and defense, when rookies can jump right in and lead the league in scoring and long-time veterans end up having to sell their wares to the CFL just to get a paycheck -- or when a team like the Titans can go from last in the NFL in defense to fifth in a single offseason, while the Dolphins plunge from fourth overall to 23rd -- it's just too volatile of a market to place enough faith in your projections to make them anything but your last few picks.

As much as I'd like to be the renegade that stands out on a limb and suggests otherwise, the tree that has grown from the evidence before me is far too tall to reach even the lowest of its branches.

AJ Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.

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