Are kickers random? Well, not entirely. There's some correlation between the best NFL offenses and the best place-kickers for fantasy (see chart on right).
But the Minnesota Vikings ranked 20th in yards from scrimmage last year, yet Blair Walsh finished first among fantasy kickers, the second straight year in which fantasy's No. 1 kicker has come from the 20th-or-worst yards-producing offense.
In general, trying to get the bootsmen from the best offenses seemed to make vaguely good sense in 2012, but perhaps it's even better to find a squad that plays well between the 20s but bogs down in the red zone. Of course, that's awfully difficult to predict.
The larger point to be made about fantasy kickers -- and the reason you shouldn't consider taking one before the very end of your draft -- is that the difference between them tends to be microscopic. Yes, Walsh scored 165 fantasy points last year, but he was separated from the No. 10 kicker (Dan Bailey) by an average of fewer than two fantasy points per week. And that's to say nothing of game-to-game variability; the top 10 fantasy kickers from 2012 amassed six fantasy points or fewer in 26.9 percent of their starts, almost exactly the same number as in 2011.
In other words: Don't stress about your kicker. Don't be afraid to dump a guy who was supposed to be good. (David Akers and Mason Crosby were top-six kickers in '11 and fell off the map last year.) Don't be afraid to pounce on a guy you think plays for a miserable team but who started the year hot. (I assume not too many folks had faith in Justin Tucker last summer, but he wound up just fine as a free-agent find.)
Let's take a look at the kicker landscape for 2012, but let's not fall in love with anyone, shall we?
Stephen Gostkowski gets an acceptable number of field goal attempts and an extraordinary number of extra points. Since 2006, he's been in the top five in extra-point attempts in four of six seasons, including 2012 when he bested every other NFL kicker by nine. There's no reason the New England Patriots' offense should slow down in 2013. … As a rookie in 2012, Walsh set an NFL record by drilling 10 of 10 kicks from 50-plus yards. His home-dome kicking environment is ideal, the Vikings offense is just stagnant enough to bog down in opponents' territory, and Walsh is obviously the possessor of one heck of a leg. It's fair to be concerned that circumstances could conspire to give Walsh fewer long-distance attempts, but by the same token, the Vikes may be emboldened to use him from way downtown even more this year. … In his three seasons as the Atlanta Falcons' full-time kicker, Matt Bryant has made 88 of 98 attempts (89.8 percent), the best percentage of anyone with at least 40 attempts in that span. He's also drilled all 133 of his extra-point attempts with Atlanta, and that total is third-most in the NFL. Bryant doesn't have a long-distance leg, but he's steady. … Justin Tucker surprisingly beat out Billy Cundiff last preseason then spent the 2012 campaign showing why. He nailed 30 of 33 attempts overall, including 4 of 4 from 50-plus yards. He also sent the Baltimore Ravens to the AFC title game with a clutch 47-yarder in the playoffs. He's a fantasy starter. … Matt Prater benefits from the mile-high air: His career mark on field goal attempts of 50-plus yards is 15-of-20, or 75 percent, which is the best in NFL history. He has booted at least one 50-plus-yarder in all five seasons as the Broncos' starter and has two 59-yarders to his credit.
Garrett Hartley had the second-most extra-point attempts in the NFL last year (57) but had only 22 field goal attempts, fewest among any kicker who played 16 games. It was heartening that Hartley finally played a full season without injury or suspension and his FG attempts probably will balance out a bit in 2013, but you probably can't consider him a top-five option. … Mason Crosby has the elite Green Bay offense behind him, but he struggled in 2012. To some extent, his disappointing numbers look worse than they were: He may have been 21-for-33 on field goal attempts overall, but he was 2-of-9 from 50-plus yards. Still, while other fantasy kickers keep drilling long ones on a regular basis, the fact that Crosby struggled to do so in 2012 is a mark against him. He's reportedly going to get a camp battle from Giorgio Tavecchio. … Rob Bironas had a tough year in 2012, going 5-for-10 on kicks between 40-49 yards, which was surprising since his career success rate on such kicks coming into the year was 81.1 percent. Still, his accurate history would be enough to forgive him if I believed fully in Jake Locker. I don't. In a league in which the most-used kickers attempt between 40 and 50 field goals a season, Bironas has topped 33 just once in his eight-year career, and that's directly related to the Tennessee Titans' offense. I don't think Locker changes things overnight in 2013.
Phil Dawson takes the elevator up in team quality, traveling from the Cleveland Browns to the San Francisco 49ers. The Niners provided David Akers with a league-high 42 field goal attempts last year, but Akers made only 69 percent of them, which explains why he no longer boots by the Bay. Considering Dawson converted a league-high 93.5 percent of his field goal attempts in 2012, he has a chance to vault to the elite level of his position. … Randy Bullock was set to earn the Houston Texans' valuable kicking job last summer as a rookie, but he tore a groin muscle in training camp and was lost for the season. In his stead, Shayne Graham rode his typical short-range accuracy to a sterling fantasy season, but Houston believes Bullock will give it another dimension. The Texans should continue their high-scoring ways -- ranked in the NFL's top third in points scored for four straight years -- and Bullock should thrive. … Josh Brown spent nine years laboring for the Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams then subbed in for the Cincinnati Bengals in December. Once considered a big leg, Brown's long-distance attempts and conversion rate dipped over the past few seasons, but with the New York Giants, he should see a spike in his overall weekly volume. Lawrence Tynes finished third in field goal attempts in 2012 booting for the G-Men. As long as Brown beats out David Buehler in camp, he could factor into starting fantasy lineups this fall. … Akers followed up his spectacular 2011 campaign with an awful '12 and finds himself replacing Jason Hanson for the Detroit Lions. That means he gets to play his home games in a dome and has the NFL's pass-heaviest offense behind him. Akers' potential is huge, but so is the worry that last season will recur.
The Buffalo Bills still have Rian Lindell on their roster, but they drafted Florida State's Dustin Hopkins, the career leading point scorer in Football Bowl Subdivision history among kickers. This will be a camp battle, one that the Bills would probably prefer the younger, cheaper Hopkins wins. Of course, there's little guarantee that the Bills will provide enough offense to make their kicker valuable for fantasy. … The same holds true for the Miami Dolphins, who have Dan Carpenter in the fold but drafted Caleb Sturgis in April. Carpenter does have the third-most field goal attempts of all NFL kickers over the past three years, so perhaps if Sturgis wins the job, the former Florida bootsman could become more of a fantasy factor than Carpenter did. Feel free to keep an eye on these guys in training camp, but there's no reason the winner of this battle should be anything more than a potential waiver add during the 2013 season.
If the Seahawks' offense is going to be as explosive and dangerous as everyone says, then Steven Hauschka could benefit. He's only 4-for-10 in his career on field goal attempts that travel 50-plus yards, so you're not going to get those valuable long tries from Hauschka. But perhaps Seattle goes on a scoring binge, creating an otherworldly number of extra points. … Quietly, Connor Barth finished eighth among fantasy kickers last year and then got $4 million guaranteed from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I'm not sold that Josh Freeman will hang on to Tampa's starting QB job, but if he does, and the offense continues on an upward path in 2013, Barth would benefit. Of course, he's never finished among the top 10 kickers in field goal attempts in any season of his pro career, so don't hold your breath. … If you're skeptical that Chip Kelly is about to transform the Philadelphia Eagles into the new version of the "Greatest Show on Turf," you're not alone. But if he's able to make NFL defenses look helpless with a high-octane, spread attack, Alex Henery would become a kicker worth owning. Don't draft him, but it's fine to keep an eye on what happens in Philly.
Don't waste too many brain cells thinking about kickers. If your draft features a run on them before the final couple of rounds, chuckle to yourself, take another flyer on a possible surprise running back or wide receiver, and wait. There will rarely be much difference between the top kicker and the 10th kicker, plus it's tough to predict which guys will occupy those spots on a weekly basis. Take your kicker in the last round. And never take a second kicker. Ever. You'll work out your bye-week issue later.
It doesn't matter when in your auction you get your kicker. Just make sure you don't pay more than $1 for him. If somebody wants to bump up one of the "elites" at this position to more money than that, nod graciously and bow out. There's absolutely no reason to leech away any more of your budget to the kicker position.