In Defense of Kickers

Confession time: Your Commish is a Chicago Bears fan. Its been, shall we say, a tough off-season. I’ve spent more time whispering to myself “Good as Gould” since the double doink than I care to admit, and watching my Twitter timeline reveal the Bears’ placekicker tryouts as nothing short of the 78th annual Hunger Games is doing nothing to ease my anxiety.

Last week, on the Riff Raff Twitter handle, I posed the most controversial fantasy football question known to man: “Should kickers be included in fantasy football?” Ripe with typos (as one comes to expect from GMRRFFA), the scientific poll proved very much in opposition, 66% claiming kickers are “dymb.”

I couldn’t help myself when I looked at the comments, a rabbit hole of animosity to say the least, but let’s look at some of my favorites:

“Having kickers sycks.” @Diredonkey
“To me it comes down to strategy. There is 0 strategy waiting until the 2nd to last or last round in a draft to select a random kicker…” @LeviChappell
“Losing a championship because an unpredictable kicker got my opponent 20+ points is stupid.” @NickSitro

But the most convincing was from @sonicBAMA:

“If you don't know how to draft a kicker, you shouldn't even play.”

SonicBAMA (if that is your real name?) is sooooo right. Up until last year, I hadn’t even considered the kicker slot at all controversial. I definitely experienced fantasy match-ups that went down to the kickers, but I also had wins and losses determined by a third-string running back or streaming a back-end quarterback for a late season playoff run, so ultimately I’ve remained pretty open to kickers impacting the week-to-week fantasy football scene.

Welp, 66% of you think I’m wrong, but as my mom always said: “If everyone’s jumping off a bridge, are you going to jump too?” She’s right, mostly at least.

The majority consensus from last week’s poll is wrong, and I’m not jumping off the Stephen Gostowski Bridge and eliminating kickers from GMRRFFA. In fact, while everyone sweats out the recent spat of training camp injuries, or dissects the AJG injury in detail on their anonymous Reddit page, I’m diving it to make a world-class case to keep kickers in your fantasy league.

Kicking is Hard

First, I don’t believe it’s an understatement to say that place kicking in the NFL, college, high school, or otherwise is actually really hard. It should be no surprise, but the Ravens’ Justin Tucker is, by all metrics, the best kicker in the NFL, and his career field goal average is only 90%. In fact, he’s the only kicker ever above that 90% measure, but even he misses once every ten FG attempts! Successfully kicking a field goal nine out of ten times seems fairly good (and it is), but statistically there’s still a 10% chance he’ll miss.

In total, kickers compose approximately 2% of all NFL rosters – that’s not a lot. Last year, only 41 players attempted a field goal or extra point and since 2001, only 17 kickers have been drafted by NFL teams, meaning most kickers are pulled from the parking lot to audition for jobs every season. Let’s not pretend NFL teams – like our fantasy rosters – should be investing significant capital in a kicker like the Raiders did back in 2000, but like a high-performing quarterback, identifying a reliable kicker is pretty damn difficult (yet important).

The top 20 NFL kickers last year attempted 639 field goals, successfully making around 84% of attempts. By comparison, the top 20 FBS kickers successfully made roughly 78% of attempts! To no one’s surprise, the further away, the worse those numbers get: NFL kickers averaged 74% of field goals attempted over 40 yards – I can assure you no college kicker is even in that range from that distance. I attempted to look at FCS kickers, but I’ll spare you their percentages. In short, NFL kickers, rarely a lock in most attempts, are as good as it gets and, as evidenced by the double doink, there’s still no guarantee.

Kickers have a very specific and difficult skill set (kicking an oblong ball through an H some 120-150 feet away), and that’s before we even consider weather conditions and mental space. Aside from a quarterback, I’d be hard-pressed to identify any other positional player where the weather plays more of a challenge than it does for kickers. And, let’s be very honest, coaches aren’t calling timeouts to ice quarterbacks or defensive backs in the final moments of a game.

Ultimately, the NFL place-kicking challenge is wildly underrated – between the level of talent, statistics suggesting they’ll miss a high number of times, plus the weather and mental challenges, overlooking the kicker’s role is actually can cost an NFL team a victory. In the fantasy football space, overlooking the position and simply inserting a random kicker in your starting line-up could also have consequences.

Drafting a Kicker isn’t Easy

Every league varies with regard to kicker points, with some wildly disproportionate to the position’s value (likely causing irreparable damage to a kicker’s place on many fantasy rosters), but you need to hear me out.

In GMRRFFA last season, the top 20 kickers averaged roughly 8.3 points per game (for our purposes, scoring goes: +1 PAT made/-1 PAT missed; +3 0-39 FGM; +4 40-49 FGM; +5 50+ FGM; -3 FGM 0-39). In fact, 12 actually exceed the average, including Greg Zuerlein, who averaged three points more per game.

Ultimately, I’m not suggesting spending serious capital on a kicker, that’d be silly, but there’s actually some thought behind all of this, right? Imagine drafting wide receivers in your draft, where smart owners know that previous year targets are one of the best indicators of the next year’s performance. The same goes for kickers and FGA.

Of the top 20 kickers last year, the average attempt was 32 per season, or two per week (MATH!), but there’s a reason someone like Ka’imi Fairbairn with Houston averaged 10.5 points per week compared to say Sebastian Janikowski, who was #19 with 7.4 points. Fairbairn averaged an extra field goal attempt per week over the Raiders’ kicker (not to mention six points higher FG completion rate).

Like every other skill position, identifying those kickers (even if you need to Google who they are) who will have ample opportunity to make attempts is actually pretty important in fantasy football.

NFL and Fantasy Games Decided by 3 Points or Fewer

Fun fact: over the last few decades, the NFL focused substantial efforts on balance across the league year-over-year (ie parity). Since 2011, 47% of playoff teams weren’t in the playoffs the previous season, largely due to revenue sharing, the draft process, free agency, etc. To no one’s surprise, 72 NFL games were decided by 3 points or less last season, a league record, and guess what, field goals equal three points.

So, again as a Chicago Bears fan, no one truly gets the value of a kicker more than I do, and NFL games last season highlighted how valuable a dependable kicker is in a league focused so heavily on parity, but again, does anyone really care about kickers in a fantasy football space?

If you’ve read this far, then you’ve already muttered to yourself “Yes,” likely after losing in heartbreaking fashion to an opponent whose kicker dropped 20 on you in a game decided by 5 points. Like the NFL, fantasy football is intricately designed for parity – if you do traditional (and slightly boring) snake drafts, there’s a reason that the last pick in one round gets the first pick in another. All things being equal, fantasy football owners all should have studs at the top of their rosters (unless something’s gone horribly wrong, like auto-draft). Like NFL teams themselves, fantasy owners excel in late round acquisitions or sneaky smart trades, not necessarily by simply nabbing 2-3 studs at the top of their draft boards and running away with a title (except for that random guy on Twitter, yes I know you’ve won five titles every season since 1994).

In the 2018 GMRRFFA season, 17 match-ups were decided by margins of victory of ten points or fewer, roughly 9% of match-ups during the season, including playoffs. Of those, including TWO close wins by the eventual GMRRFFA champ during the playoffs, the winning team’s kicker outperformed his counterpart on the losing side just eight times.

Notably, in Week 8, FIL knocked off Garcia by just seven points while his kicker Graham Gano dropped 15 points (not astronomical but 7 points higher than the average weekly performance by kickers) while Garcia’s kicker dropped just six points. The 9-point difference not only won the week for FIL, but also secured a division victory at the end of the season by one game over Tito Galen.

In Week 9, yours truly snuck by the quasi-lucid Smeet by a single point after Gregg Zuerlein out-kicked my true love Robbie Gould by… wait for it… one point. That victory helped the Commish begrudgingly sneak into the playoffs.

"You had to bring that up?"

By all accounts, then-defending champ the Unicorn had an abysmal season, but did you know he finished just one game out of the playoffs after quietly finishing 3-2? That’s a fact, BUT Week 11 was one of those losses, when he dropped a 4-point heart-breaker to the barely-conscious Smeet, where Kai Fairburn finished with 13 points for Smeet while Jake Eliot accounted for just one point for the Unicorn. Playing what-ifs in fantasy is a dangerous rabbit hole, but the Unicorn winning Week 11 meant a shot to defend his title in the postseason.

There isn’t a magic solution to correctly pick kickers, but let’s not inflate their production either – last year in GMRRFFA, kickers scored above 15 points 22 times (including three different kickers in Weeks 6 and 13), but they only eclipsed 20 points five of those times.

Each week, the law of averages suggests ONE kicker is having a very strong week, and ultimately rolling the dice with some research and smarts makes sense. But please don’t exclaim it’s unfair – streaming the perfect kicker to have a strong performance is essentially akin to identifying the third wide receiver who may be primed for a strong week against an inferior Defense, or nabbing a decent D because of their match-up on the other side. The point is, if you’re smart, kickers have real value.

The Randomness of Fantasy Football

Look, from the Twitter poll comments, I get that owners are frustrated when an opponent’s kicker drops 15 points. It’s a fair argument and ultimately frustrating to lose to the likes of Graham Gano and Codey fucking Parkey. That said, I’d argue it’s a very slippery slope.

Arguing kickers’ random performance negatively impacts the game is essentially the equivalent of arguing we shouldn’t be allowed to stream late-season players, like Robby Anderson. In 2018, Anderson finished with just 50 catches over the season, but did you know he was the 2nd best WR in the league weeks 14 through 16 (i.e., fantasy football playoffs)? That’s right, Anderson averaged 23 points per week during the playoff run, including 20 catches for 312 yards and three touchdowns, a 6.66/104/1 split. In the 13 weeks leading up to the fantasy football playoff run, he was at 2 catches/32 yards/.25 per week, 69th best among wide receivers.

The running back slot wasn’t much different either – Derrick Henry was the top RB in weeks 14 through 16, averaging 30 points per week, but he was 34th among running backs in the first 13 weeks of the season. It wasn’t just Henry either – Elijiam McGuire finished as the 6th best back during your championship run, averaging 15 points per week. In the 13 previous weeks, he was 79th, averaging just four points per week. Yes, he sat out the first eight games, but he only ranked 58th weeks 9 through 13.

Fantasy football’s foundation relies on the randomness of scoring – which receiver gets tackled at the one-yard line versus scoring a touchdown is a six point random swing. A kicker outperforming the average 8+ points per week because they nail a 50-yard field goal shouldn’t be the victim of blame from fantasy football owners on the losing end of a close match-up.

You either embrace the randomness or you drive yourself insane.

The Kicker Keeper Instances

This deviates a bit from the hard and fast statistics, but if you’ve come this far, don’t you want to know what I mean? I’m steadfast that no kicker is ever worth a keeper slot, but that’s not always the case.

Just imagine you’re in a competitive league, say with 14 teams and 3 keepers and a $300 auction budget… In this scenario, keepers, particularly cheap keepers, are gold. Now, say when the keeper deadline passes, one of your competitors bizarrely decided a kicker was worth keeping. Hypothetically, it’s Stephen Gostowski. Then you look at his cost… a jaw-dropping $22, or 7% of that team’s budget. That’s…insane!

And guess what, your competitor keeping a decent kicker for $20 more than the cost to draft one DOES NOT HAPPEN if kickers aren’t in your league. Imagine the 3+ years of jokes you’ve slid into content, side chats and all other spaces that would be LOST without kickers in your league. It doesn’t matter that a kicker cost you a championship; just knowing this scenario is out there should make having kickers included all the more necessary.

Some Helpful Suggestions

Okay, we’re nearing the end, but you can tell I’m more gung-ho for kickers than even I anticipated at the onset of this column. The research definitely affirms my unequivocal support for the decision. That said, yea, there are things that need to be adjusted.

First, it’s probably best to eliminate the one point for extra points. The top 20 kickers made 94% of attempts last year, so it doesn’t seem to mean much. That said, for the 36 missed extra points, leagues should definitely increase the negative points from -1 to -2.

In a similar vein, rewarding points for field goals 29 yards or under is probably too much. In GMRRFFA, we currently give 3 points for these, but those same top 20 kickers successfully kicked 142 of 144 field goals under 30 yards last season. Lowering the value for these probably makes sense. The 30-39 FGM value should be lowered too – 94% of those attempts were successful last year as well.

Finally, as you begin to research kickers for your draft, do not read this as a slippery slope endorsement for punters being included in your league. Its not. In fact, I’m in a league with punters and it’s stupid, bordering on impossible to understand. I’m sure punters are skilled but advocating for points based on average punts and such is just unnecessary.

Congratulations! You’ve combed through 2,400 words about why kickers matter – embrace the position and, if you’re a GMRRFFA opponent of the Commish, go snag Codey fucking Parkey.

Riff Raff

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