Metrics that Matter: The unpredictability of kickers
(Metrics that Matter is a regular offseason feature that examines some aspect of fantasy through a microscope to dive into the finer details.)
Fantasy football, like poker, is a game comprised partly of chance and partly of skill. While luck and variance are out of our control in either game, we can help minimize its negative effects by playing as optimally as possible.
Over a large enough sample, the winningest player in poker or fantasy football is typically the player who has made the fewest mistakes. This means putting in more effort than your opponents – familiarizing yourself with ADP, reading articles, always staying up to date on late-breaking news, always setting your lineup and waivers, etc. This means being smarter than your opponents – the more information a player gathers and uses, the more successful they are likely to be at either game.
This also means trying to maximize every potential edge possible, no matter how small. In today’s case, that means talking about everyone’s least-favorite topic – how and when to draft a fantasy kicker. (Sorry.)
Do kickers matter?
Last season, Greg Zuerlein and Stephen Gostkowski totaled more fantasy points (in standard leagues) than all tight ends and all but just six wide receivers. Eight different kickers outscored the No. 15 wide receiver in fantasy points. Only Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins, among wide receivers, averaged more fantasy points per game than Zuerlein last season.
This was something of an abnormality. Last season, Zuerlein scored the third-most fantasy points of any kicker this past decade, and he did it in only 14 games. On a fantasy-point-per-game basis, he scored the most by any kicker this past decade, while Kansas City’s Harrison Butker ranked second-best. Gostkowski scored the fifth-most fantasy points this past decade, and now owns five of the eight highest-scoring seasons over this span.
The difference between the No. 1 and No. 12 kicker in fantasy points per game was 37 total fantasy points, or the difference between the No. 4 (Jarvis Landry) and No. 12 fantasy wide receiver (Golden Tate). In 2016 and 2015, the difference was much smaller (especially in PPR leagues), but clearly kickers do have some sort of an impact.
There is an edge in owning the highest-scoring kicker, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s worth investing in a high-end fantasy kicker. Why? Well, mostly, because it’s very hard to predict which kickers are going to score the most fantasy points.
In order to determine whether or not this is true, I spent some time looking at the correlations between various statistics and fantasy points scored by kickers. Here’s the result of my research:
Digging deep into fantasy point correlations for kickers: pic.twitter.com/q9IZOzuv8S
— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) April 21, 2018
Notes: Don’t be fooled by the color-formatting — even fantasy points (which had the highest correlation) in our middle chart is considered as having a weak relationship to fantasy points scored in the following season. All of the statistics in our right-most chart are considered as having an extremely weak relationship to fantasy points scored in that week.
Looking at these results, the data suggest that if forced to draft a kicker in a season-long league, your best bet is simply ranking them based on prior-year fantasy points scored.
Though, really, these correlations are so low that they’re basically insignificant. (They were, however, almost all better than ADP, which showed a 0.00 correlation.) The main conclusion from these results, then, is that kicker is scoring is almost completely random.
This is why my preferred strategy for drafting a kicker is not to bother. Instead, I’ll select a skill position player with upside who might rise in ADP amid preseason buzz and preseason games. I can then trade this player and make a quick profit, drop them for a kicker, or drop another player for a kicker right before Week 1. This strategy is especially useful in leagues that draft early. If forced to draft a kicker, I’ll typically wait until the last round.
Zuerlein currently has an ADP in the 12th round. He certainly put up some terrific numbers last year, but he’s also never finished higher than 20th-overall across his prior five seasons in the league. Gostkowski also has an ADP in the 12th round, and he’s been far more dependable, finishing top-two at the position in six of his last seven seasons. Still, I’m much more likely to let someone else draft him, instead loading up on skill position players with upside. Among drafted players, Alvin Kamara, Dion Lewis, Deshaun Watson, and Alex Smith all had an ADP in the 13th round or later last season, and would have made a much larger impact to your starting lineups. Also, keep in mind, because kicker scoring is so random, they’re also easily replaced. Seemingly every week you can find a few top-10 kickers in fantasy points in your free agency pool.
Based on weekly correlations, our results were similar, though the correlations here were even lower than in season-long, suggesting, again, our edge isn’t much greater than picking at random.
Even looking at trailing fantasy-point-per-game average (starting at Week 2 or Week 8), the correlation to in-week fantasy points scored was extremely low. The data suggest you might be better off streaming than just rostering a kicker based on in-season fantasy totals. Though, to be fair, the kickers on teams who frequently rank highest in implied total and spread are usually rostered.
If you are going to stream, you’re best off selecting kickers on teams that are heavy favorites with a high Vegas implied point total. This does make some sense intuitively. You want kickers on teams likely to score a lot of points (making frequent trips into the red zone), and unlikely to be trailing (forced into a situation where your offense might “go for it” on fourth down).
I did find a few more hacks for those desperate for an edge on FanDuel. Kickers averaged 8.3 fantasy points per game within my sample. Kickers at home averaged 8.5 fantasy points per game (+0.5 more than road kickers). Kickers playing in a dome averaged 8.7 fantasy points per game. Kickers in games with wind speeds of 20 miles per hour or more averaged only 7.7 fantasy points per game.
In conclusion, fantasy scoring for kickers is incredibly random, and more random than any other position I’ve looked at (including defenses).
If you’re going to draft a kicker (again, I typically wouldn’t), I’d wait until the last round of your draft.
If you’re going to play on FanDuel, I’d lean toward lower-priced kickers on teams with a high implied point total and spread, but no matter you’re process, you’re not much better off than picking at random.
If you’re the commissioner of your fantasy league, I’d suggest getting rid of the position entirely.