Commentary

Betting on a kicker is never sure thing

Are you thinking about jumping up a few rounds to grab a kicker in your next fantasy draft? Don't do it. Football Outsiders examined the consistency of NFL kickers, and the results were grim, writes Aaron Schatz.

Originally Published: July 18, 2008
By Aaron Schatz | Football Outsiders.com

Rob BironasJamie Squire/Getty ImagesTennessee Titans kicker Rob Bironas led the league last year with a kicking accuracy of 90 percent.
In 2005, Neil Rackers was the top kicker in fantasy football. He set an NFL record with 40 field goals and led the league by hitting 95 percent of his opportunities, including 6-of-7 from 50 yards or longer. Going into the 2006 season, most magazines ranked him as one of the top two fantasy kickers with big-money Colts free agent Adam Vinatieri.

All over America, fantasy owners reached for Rackers in round 10 or 11 to fill their kicking needs, instead of waiting for the last round. Yet, for all their trouble, they got just another average guy. In 2006, Rackers was ninth in fantasy points, one of eight interchangeable kickers who scored between 115 and 121 points.

Every veteran fantasy football player knows that kickers are unpredictable, but the issue isn't necessarily getting opportunities to kick. Rackers led the league in field goal attempts in both 2005 and 2006, and actually scored a dozen more extra points in 2006. His overall points dropped because of a drop in accuracy. Instead of leading the league in accuracy like he did in 2005, Rackers dropped to a below-average 76 percent in 2006. To make matters worse, he made only one of his seven attempts from 50 yards or more.

Rackers is just one example of a surprising, but important fact: There is absolutely no correlation between a kicker's field goal percentage one year and his field goal percentage the next. This is just as true for a future Hall of Famer as it is for a scrub signed off the waiver wire. Consider this. The NFL average for kicking accuracy is 83 percent, but Vinatieri -- yes, the guy who won two Super Bowls and kicked 45 and 23 yarders in the snow to beat the Raiders -- has never had two straight years with a field goal percentage above 80 percent.

Jeff Reed of Pittsburgh made 92 percent of his field goals last year, leading all kickers with at least 20 attempts. The year before, he hit 74 percent, ranking 27th out of 29 kickers with at least 20 attempts.

St. Louis gave a big contract to former Seattle kicker Josh Brown, but his field goal percentage has been right around the league's 83 percent average. In the three years before that, he bounced from 73 up to 92, then back down to 72 percent.

Remember that year Mike Vanderjagt was perfect all season? Well, he hit 74 percent of field goals the year before and 80 percent the year after.

Rookies have a little less accuracy overall, and certain kickers do have a history of getting more attempts past 50 yards. There also seems to be one kicker who can defy the laws of inconsistency -- Matt Stover of Baltimore, who has nine straight seasons with a field goal percentage above 84 percent.

Otherwise, the individual kicker means nothing on fantasy draft day. All you have to look at is the team. Better offense means more extra points and field goal opportunities. So does better defense, because turnovers and three-and-outs put the offense in closer field position.

Does this mean kickers are completely random, and there is no difference between them? Not at all. In fact, kickers are among the most consistent players in the league from season to season. The problem is that they are consistent in the other part of their job -- kickoff distance.

Statisticians use a number called the "correlation coefficient" to measure how two variables are related. If the correlation coefficient is close to 1, the two variables have a strong relationship. If it is zero, they have no relationship.

Measuring every kicker from 1999 to 2006 who had at least 10 field goal attempts in each of two consecutive years, the year-to-year correlation coefficient for field goal percentage was an insignificant .05. The year-to-year correlation coefficient for kickoff distance, over the same period and with the same minimum of ten kicks per year, is .61. Once you adjust for squibs and onside kicks, the same players consistently lead the league in kickoff distance, particularly Rackers, Olindo Mare and -- in case you thought the Rams were just throwing their money away -- Josh Brown.

It's important for front offices to know who the best kickoff artists are, but of course, that information isn't as essential to the average fantasy player. After all, do you play in a fantasy league that gives points for booming deep kickoffs? Yeah, I didn't think so.

So when your next fantasy draft comes along, keep in mind it doesn't pay to reach for a kicker. It might just save you the headache of wondering why in the 10th round you drafted Rob Bironas -- who made a league-leading 90 percent of his attempts in 2007 -- and not a player at a more valuable position like running back. And for the record, Bironas made 79 percent of his kicks in 2006.

Aaron Schatz is president of Football Outsiders Inc. and the lead author of Pro Football Prospectus 2008, now on sale online and in bookstores everywhere.