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2014 kickers fantasy preview

The kicker position continues to go largely unnoticed, but hey, it's still a position needed in the majority of fantasy leagues out there, so you might as well choose wisely.

NFL booters have been pretty unbelievable over the past four seasons, which has given even more parity to the position.

NFL FG Pct. by distance, past 4 years

As you see from this chart, kickers continue to improve both in overall field goal percentage and from long distance. The group has increased accuracy rates from both overall and from 40-to-49 yards in each of the past three seasons, while 50-yard percentage has increased 12.5 percentage points from 2010 to 2013.

No place like dome?

I usually covet indoor or warm-climate kickers, but NFL legs in general have been just too good for these factors to weigh in much.

NFL FG Pct. outdoors, past 4 years

Just like the percentages for all stadiums shown earlier in this piece, outdoor kicking percentages continue to climb, and last year's outdoor field-goal rate of 88.5 percent was considerably higher than those kicking indoors or with retractable roofs (82.0 percent). Along these same lines, field goal percentage did not drop off in the colder months, as December/January's 88 percent FG rate ranked second among the months, behind only October (89 percent) and well ahead of November (86 percent) and September (83 percent).

So what should you look for in a kicker? First you need to find a good offense:

2013 Top Fantasy Kickers (150+ Pts)
2013 Team Ranks

There were nine kickers who scored at least 150 fantasy points last year (ESPN standard scoring), and two common themes arose from the four common thought processes (points, yards, red zone trips/efficiency) when drafting a leg man. The team categories most consistent with fantasy kicker success were those that were high-scoring (eight of top nine kickers played for teams ranked 14th or better in points) and/or reached the red zone most often (all top-nine booters played for teams that ranked in the top half of the league in red-zone appearances). The chart also shows that yardage ranks don't mean as much (four of top six kickers played for teams ranked 15th or worse in total offense), and red-zone efficiency is too random, as strong kickers came from good red-zone offenses (six in top 15) and really bad red-zone offenses (three at 25th or worse). I have never subscribed to the theory of picking kickers for bad offenses in hopes their teams would stall in the red zone, and the numbers from 2013 back that up.

So the simple answer for choosing a booter is to take one from a high-powered offense, but also one with an established starting quarterback. Five of last year's top-nine kickers are teammates with Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers), while Colin Kaepernick nearly won a Super Bowl two years ago, and 24-year-old Andrew Luck has led his team to playoff berths in both of his NFL seasons. The other two QB teammates of top-nine kickers are Philip Rivers and Tony Romo, who have yet to reach the big game, but own eight Pro Bowl selections between them.

All this being said, the relative fantasy value of kickers remains unchanged, as there is no earthly reason to select a kicker before one of the final two rounds in a standard redraft league. But the kicker position still counts, so for those who stay hungry for all rounds of a draft, or if you simply love kickers as much as Taco from "The League," below is our annual booter breakdown.

The elite

Matt Prater is clearly the cream of the crop, kicking in thin air for the highest-scoring offense in the history of the league. He was an amazing 14-for-15 on field goal tries of at least 40 yards last year, including 6-of-7 from 50-plus, improving his career rate to a gaudy 78 percent (21-of-27) from 50 and beyond. ... Stephen Gostkowski led the league in scoring, as he attempted an NFL-high (and career-high) 41 field goals in 2013, and became the first player ever to make multiple three-pointers in all 16 games. The New England Patriots should be more efficient on offense in 2014, which will provide Gostkowski with much shorter attempts than last year when he attempted nearly as many FGs from 40-plus yards (19) as he did 39 yards and shorter (22). ... Justin Tucker was a busy man last season, as the Baltimore Ravens struggled to move the football, turning red-zone trips into chip-shot field goals. With the offensive upgrades the Ravens made in the offseason, such as WR Steve Smith and TE Owen Daniels, Tucker should be much closer to the 42 extra points attempted as a rookie, as opposed to the meager 26 he was given last year. Tucker made at least three field goals in seven of his final 14 games of 2013, and he is a remarkable 38-for-40 (95 percent) when kicking on the road in his career. ... Mason Crosby shook off a horrific 64 percent FG rate (2-for-9 from 50-plus) in 2012 with a career-best 89 percent clip last year (5-for-7 from 50-plus). The reason he didn't score more points was due to a career-low 42 extra points, a number that will surely rise if Rodgers plays all 16 games this year. Crosby is also a good trade candidate midway through the year with an 83 percent success rate from Weeks 1 to 8, but just 75 percent from Week 9 on. ... Steven Hauschka was nearly perfect last season, nailing 41 of 43 FG tries (95 percent) including playoffs, which wasn't too surprising considering he knocked through 27 of 30 FGs (90 percent) in 2012, numbers that also include playoffs. The Seahawks will continue to put up plenty of points with a healthy Percy Harvin and the league's best defense to give Wilson several short fields to work with.

Falling down

Graham Gano has worked hard to become a reliable NFL kicker, increasing his accuracy rates in each of the past three years from 69 percent (24-of-35) in 2010 to 89 percent (24-of-27) last season. But the reason Gano resides in this category is because I'm not buying into the Carolina Panthers' offense this season with a less-than-100-percent QB Cam Newton throwing to a receiving corps that lost its top three wideouts. Gano is no longer in my top 20. ... Caleb Sturgis started off his NFL career a perfect 10-for-10 in field goal attempts, but then he missed a game-tying, 57-yard kick in the final minute against Baltimore in Week 5, which marked the beginning of a dreadful 67 percent rate (16-of-24) for the remainder of his rookie campaign. While the accuracy is bound to improve, Sturgis is not a top-25 kicker as long as he's part of a Miami Dolphins offense that finished 27th in total offense and 26th in points last season. ... Although Sebastian Janikowski has attempted 33 kicks from 50-plus yards since 2010 (nine more than any other kicker), he had a league-low 70 percent FG accuracy rate last season, which was his personal lowest rate since 2005. I wouldn't go near Janikowski with the Raiders' anemic offense that somehow ranked 24th in scoring last year despite ranking fifth-best in red-zone efficiency.

Opportunity knocks

Some fantasy owners may forget about Matt Bryant, who scored 32 fewer points last season than in 2012. But Bryant still made 89 percent of his kicks (24 of 27 FGs) and holds a 91 percent FG accuracy rate (61-of-67) at the Georgia Dome since joining the Atlanta Falcons five seasons ago. If WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White, as well as RB Steven Jackson, can all stay healthy this year, the Falcons will get back to their 2012 ways when they finished seventh in the NFL in points (26.2 per game) and eighth in total offense (369 ypg). ... Alex Henery got off to a slow start in 2013 with misses in three of his first four games, but he settled down and knocked through 16 of 18 kicks (89 percent) in the final 12 contests. With QB Nick Foles a rising star in this league and top WR Jeremy Maclin returning from injury, the breakneck-speed offense of the Philadelphia Eagles will provide Henery with many more chances to score in 2014. ... Jay Feely has been a consistent source of points for a dozen years, connecting on at least 83 percent of his FG tries in eight of the past nine seasons. With offensive guru head coach Bruce Arians in charge, don't be surprised to see the 38-year-old duplicate his 2013 season of 30 made field goals, which included 11 games with multiple made FGs.

Unsettled situations

The most intriguing kicker situation to monitor this summer will be the Detroit Lions, who have a three-man competition between drafted rookie Nate Freese, John Potter and Giorgio Tavecchio. I think Freese, who was a perfect 20-for-20 on FG tries as a senior at Boston College, will ultimately win the job. In his final three seasons at BC, Freese nailed a solid 13 of 17 kicks from 40-plus yards out. Whoever makes the Week 1 roster will kick only three times in bad weather all season (Week 12 at New England, Week 16 at Chicago and Week 17 at Green Bay) and will get a boatload of chances with a dynamic offense that got even better this offseason with the signing of WR Golden Tate and the drafting of TE Eric Ebron. ... The only other kicker spot up for grabs is the Tennessee Titans choosing between University of Washington rookie Travis Coons or Maikon Bonani. I think Coons will win out here after nailing 15 of 16 FGs for the Huskies last season, including 6-of-7 from 40 yards and beyond. Regardless, the Titans may have the worst offense in the NFL right now, and you should not consider whichever kicker wins this job.

Sleepers

I've always liked Shayne Graham, who ranks seventh all-time in field goal accuracy at 86 percent. And I really like him kicking for a high-octane New Orleans Saints offense that since the start of the 2010 season leads the NFL in total yards and ranks second in points. Graham has always had ice water in his veins, based on his 90 percent FG accuracy (122 of 135 FGs) after halftime in his career, and with 11 games in ideal conditions, he's a top-10 kicker in my book. ... Dan Carpenter most likely will not be a top-10 kicker this season, but the Buffalo Bills should be better on offense in 2014 with QB EJ Manuel and RB C.J. Spiller back healthy, plus the addition of rookie WR Sammy Watkins. Carpenter parlayed last year's career-best FG accuracy rate (92 percent) into a four-year contract, because the Bills know that Carpenter isn't frightened by the weather conditions in Buffalo. In his career as both a visitor and a host, Carpenter has made 21 of 24 FGs (88 percent) at Ralph Wilson Stadium. ... Like Carpenter, Kai Forbath is a deep sleeper this season playing for a Washington Redskins offense that should improve with new head coach Jay Gruden, a healthy QB Robert Griffin III and playmaking WR DeSean Jackson. Forbath is 17-for-20 (85 percent) from 40 yards and beyond in his two NFL seasons, and after having two consecutive FG tries blocked versus the San Diego Chargers in Week 9, Forbath closed out the year 14-for-14 on field-goal attempts.

Draft strategy

There isn't much strategy to discuss concerning kickers for standard drafts, as there is no reason to draft one before the penultimate round. If you have one of the first few draft slots, it makes more sense to choose Prater or Gostkowski in that second-to-last round than to wait until the final round to get the 11th or 12th best kicker. In terms of deep keeper leagues with IDPs that exceed 20 rounds, it is acceptable to use a kicker pick a little bit earlier, as Prater and Gostkowski are more sure-fire picks than a backup defensive back, D-lineman or linebacker.

Auction strategy

I wouldn't advise paying more than $1 for any kicker, but if you have a lot of money at the end of an auction and really want Prater or Gostkowski, bidding $2 isn't going to be a game-changing event for the makeup of your team.