Fantasy Football 2018: Kicker Primer

The kicker position may be annoying, and the bonus points for distance are a joke, but it still matters more than you might think
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Fantasy owners don’t spend too much time thinking about their kickers, and with good reason. Most kickers, even ones that end up being worthy starters in fantasy leagues, don’t swing very many, if any, fantasy matchups. Leagues without kickers are proliferating around the fantasy community, and it’s entirely possible that there comes a time when the standard league does not use the position. Until that time arrives, however, you would be wise to learn a thing or two about kickers. They matter more than you think.


Burning Questions

I read the intro, but do kickers really matter?

Last year, Greg Zuerlein led all kickers with 158 points and 11.29 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. Harrison Butker was close behind, scoring 142 total points and 10.92 points per game. Zuerlein scored more points per game in standard leagues than Mike Evans, Golden Tate and Lamar Miller, while Butker outdid Alshon Jeffery and Alex Collins. Kicker may seem like a throwaway position, but it absolutely matters if your league uses it.

The top-12 kickers in 2017 averaged 139.83 total points and 8.97 points per game (Zuerlein and Butker missed a combined five games), which, in recent seasons, has been equal to about low-end WR3 or high-end WR4 production in standard-scoring leagues. That may not sound like it moves the needle very much, but getting season-long WR3 or WR4 production out of your kicker can make a difference. Just like Zuerlein and Butker last year, the best kickers typically post WR2 numbers on a per-game basis. They still belong in the final rounds of any draft, largely because of the year-to-year volatility and their inherent fungibility, but they can be real weapons in any fantasy format. Don’t consider kicker a throwaway pick, just because it’s one of your final selections.

How should my league score this position?

I have some strongly held opinions about what the structure of a fantasy football league should look like. PPR is terrible and should not be used. Superflex is the best way to play. Generally, the more starting spots the better. And finally, yardage bonuses are an affront to logic that have no business in the fantasy game.

Every scoring play is worth in fantasy what it is worth in real life. Players get six points for scoring touchdowns. Steph Curry gets three points for every triple he makes, no matter if he’s an inch or 10 feet behind the three-point line. When Mike Trout hits a two-run homer, he adds one homer and two RBI to a fantasy team’s bottom line, no matter if it goes 330 feet or 450 feet. Quarterbacks get just four points for touchdowns, but that’s a necessary evil that prevents them from completely controlling fantasy leagues, and, crucially, that makes their touchdowns worth less than they are in real life. Only leagues with yardage bonuses make scoring plays worth more in fantasy than they are in real life, and nowhere is that more of a joke than it is on 40-plus- and 50-plus-yard field goals.

Fantasy Football 2018: QB Primer

As we’ve already discussed, kickers score enough points as it is for a low-value position. In leagues with yardage bonuses, Greg Zuerlein scored 13 points per game last year, more than Michael Thomas and Jordan Howard in standard-scoring leagues. No fantasy football format should ever allow a kicker to score more points per game than the No. 5 receiver or No. 12 running back, let alone both of them. It’s worth noting, too, that kickers have become too good for yardage bonuses, even though they were always a ridiculous notion. League-wide, kickers made 82.2% of field goal attempts between 40 and 49 yards last year, and 69.5% of attempts from beyond 50 yards. By comparison, the NBA’s league-wide free-throw percentage last season was 76.7%. Last I checked, those still count for just one point in fantasy leagues. Stop with the yardage bonuses. They’re ridiculous.

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Who’s this year’s Harrison Butker?

Every year, a kicker the vast majority of the fantasy community has never heard of ends the season as one of the position’s highest scorers. It was Butker last year, but he was just the latest entry in a club that includes Wil Lutz (2016), Cody Parkey (2014) and Blair Walsh (2012), among others. It’s a pretty good bet that a rookie or second-year player who did little kicking last season will finish this year as a top-10 player at the position. Ka’imi Fairbairn has the best chance to be that kicker this year.

Had Deshaun Watson not torn his ACL, it’s entirely likely that Fairbairn would’ve been a top-10 kicker last year. In Watson’s six starts, Fairbairn connected on all 11 of his field goal attempts and 19 extra points, giving him 52 points, or 8.67 points per game. That comes out to 138.67 points over 16 games, which would have made him the No. 8 kicker last year. Unfortunately, Houston’s offense went in the tank after Watson’s injury, and Fairbairn got just 14 field goal and 13 extra point attempts in the season’s final nine games. He made nine of the field goals and 12 of the extra points, finishing the year with 92 points.

With Watson back under center and reportedly a “full-go” at the start of training camp, there’s every reason to believe the offense will excel this season. If that ends up being the case, Fairbairn will be a big beneficiary. The best fantasy kickers are typically tied to the league’s best offenses, and the Texans can be one of those with a healthy Watson.

Fantasy Football 2018: Defense and Special Teams Primer

Is there any kicker getting drafted regularly who you’d avoid?

I’ve long been a Dan Bailey fan, but there is some major risk tied to the Dallas offense this season. Ezekiel Elliott and the run game should be toward the top of the league again, but this offense could have major issues moving the ball through the air. The top receivers on the depth chart are Allen Hurns, rookie Michael Gallup, Deonte Thompson, Terrance Williams, Tavon Austin and Cole Beasley. Not all of those guys will break camp with the team, but the position almost certainly isn’t getting any better by Week 1. Add in tight end room populated by Blake Jarwin, Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers and Dalton Schutlz, and you have one of the worst pass-catching groups in the league.

That alone isn’t a guarantee that Bailey will have a down year, but typically you don’t want your kicker tied to a passing game that could be legitimately terrible. On top of that, Bailey is coming off the worst season of his career, during which he connected on just 75% of his field goals and missed four games due to injury. Before 2016, Bailey had never made fewer than 86.2% of his field goals, and topped a 90% success rate three times in five years. He has made fewer than 85% of his attempts in both of the last two years, and even missed the first two extra points of his career last year.

Let’s say you’re the last person in your league to take a kicker. Who are you grabbing?

This question assumes we’re talking someone outside the top 11 kickers by average draft position, so how about Robbie Gould? He enjoyed a resurgence in his first year in San Francisco, making a league-high 39-of-41 field goals and finishing the year with 145 points, a new career-high. Gould thrived once Jimmy Garoppolo took over as the starter, scoring 66 points in the season’s final five games, while making all 18 of his field goal attempts. Gould has always been accurate, successfully converting 86.9% of his career field goal attempts, and while he doesn’t have an elite leg in terms of strength, he made all four of his 50-yard attempts and 17-of-18 from between 40 and 49 yards last year. The 49ers could take off in Garoppolo’s first year as the starter, and that would undoubtedly keep Gould among the league’s top-10 scorers at kicker.