2011 kicker fantasy preview

Every year, I want to believe that there's rhyme and/or reason to how kickers function. And truthfully, if you look at an entire season's worth of data, I think it would be unfair to say kicker performance is completely random. Who were supposed to be the best offenses headed into the 2010 season? In some order, I'd answer: Saints, Colts, Packers, Patriots and Texans. And over the course of the whole season, the kickers who booted for those squads performed well enough for fantasy that at least you didn't need to replace them (except when Garrett Hartley got benched and Stephen Gostkowski got hurt).

But look at how last year's 10 highest-drafted kickers (according to average draft position, or ADP) actually wound up performing relative to their position mates:

Zoinks. Some more of these guys got hurt (Kaeding and Prater), and let's also be clear that the season-long point differential of, for example, the No. 3 and the No. 14 fantasy kickers last year was 22 points, or about 1.4 points per week. There just isn't that much to distinguish these dudes from one another, provided they're in the lineup. But the larger point is simply: How in the world could you ever justify spending anything other than a final-round pick on a place-kicker?

In other words: Don't stress about your kicker. Don't be afraid to dump a guy who was "supposed" to be good. Don't be afraid to pounce on a guy you think plays for a miserable team, but who's started the year hot. Heck, Sebastian Janikowski was fantasy's No. 1 kicker last year, after having been No. 12 in '09. Let's take a look at the kicker landscape for '11, but let's not fall in love with anyone, shall we?

The elite
Kaeding was also our No. 1 kicker last year, but he missed three games because of an injured groin that might also have affected his accuracy once he began booting again. He'd made 88.4 percent of his kicks in the five seasons prior to '10, but last year his mark was "only" 82.1 percent. I like the Chargers' offense, I like Kaeding's longevity and I'm assuming he stays healthy this year. … The Texans opened training camp last summer with a competition at kicker: Neil Rackers versus Kris Brown. Considering Rackers was a free-agent signee, he seemed like a good bet to win the job, and he did. He's been in the top 11 in field goal accuracy in each of the past three seasons, and Houston figures to march it up and down the field on offense again. … Josh Brown always had elite talent, he was simply saddled with terrible Rams offenses in the first two years of his St. Louis career. But Sam Bradford brought bluer skies, and Brown rose to the challenge, leading the league in field goals in '10. Plus his booming leg gives him a weekly shot at long-distance attempts. … Rob Bironas hasn't missed more than five kicks in a season in the past four years and boasts an 84.4 percent success rate on boots 40 yards or longer in that span. Unfortunately, last year the Titans played poorly on offense, and Bironas wound up ranking only 22nd in field goal attempts. Even a little improvement moving the ball for Tennessee will hoist Bironas back up where he belongs. … Stephen Gostkowski should be fully recovered from his torn quad muscle, and should go right back to kicking a bunch of PATs for the Patriots. If you combine Gostkowski's and Shayne Graham's numbers booting for the Pats last year, you'd wind up with fantasy's No. 7 kicker. … Garrett Hartley blew a 29-yard chip-shot potential game-winner in Week 3 last season, and temporarily lost his job. But he returned a few weeks later, and made 16 of his next 18 field goal attempts. You don't find many kicking situations better than being inside a dome and having Drew Brees as your QB.

Falling down
David Akers moved from the Eagles to the 49ers this summer, as Philly drafted Alex Henery in the fourth round of April's draft. Akers finished second in fantasy points among kickers in both '09 and '10, in large part because kicking for Philly tends to be a valuable job, as the offense moves the ball well but stalls out near the opponent's goal line so often. Akers' value dips significantly with Alex Smith leading his offense, leading me to believe he won't be a fantasy starter this year. … Ryan Longwell missed only one kick all last year, but his 18 field goal attempts tied him for 28th in the NFL. He's been one of football's most accurate kickers over the past two seasons, at least partly thanks to the Metrodome, and he'll return in '11. But the Vikings' offensive disorganization may continue with Donovan McNabb under center, which doesn't lead me to trust that Longwell will definitely bounce back. I don't view him as a fantasy starter in Week 1. … In the past two seasons, Robbie Gould has displayed an unexpectedly good long-distance leg, and he's never missed a kick inside of 30 yards in his entire career. But the Bears' bootsman hasn't been elite in overall accuracy or volume since '06, and he has a terrible December home kicking environment. He's also attached to one of the league's lesser scoring offenses. Until that changes, he's an unexciting option.

Unsettled situations
David Buehler will probably win the Cowboys' kicking job, but it's not a lock. Dallas has also brought in Kai Forbath and Dan Bailey to serve as camp competition, and it isn't as though Buehler has set the world ablaze so far in his NFL career. Last year, he connected on only 24 of his 32 attempts. … Ageless Jason Hanson will get a battle from Dave Rayner in Lions camp, and Hanson may be vulnerable at age 41 and coming off a series of leg injuries. I'd expect Hanson to win the gig, but it's not a sure thing. … The Redskins signed Shayne Graham to compete with Graham Gano, and I give Graham a very good chance to unseat the incumbent. As I mentioned above, Graham was more than competent booting for the Patriots in the second half of '10, while Gano was perhaps the NFL's worst full-time bootsman, converting just 68.6 percent of his attempts. … Brandon Coutu and Jeff Reed will compete to be the starter in Seattle, after the Seahawks lost Olindo Mare to the Panthers this summer. Reed can be a bit of a loose cannon off the field, but on it he performed well in a relief role with the 49ers last season. I tentatively expect him to win the job, though it doesn't figure to be a valuable slot for a fantasy kicker.

Maybe Sebastian Janikowski has it in him to do it again. I'm skeptical, because until he scored 142 real-life NFL points last season, he hadn't topped 100 since '04. But there's no doubting SeaBass has a huge leg, and will always rank among the league leaders in long-range attempts. His bugaboo is usually either accuracy or his offense's inability to consistently move the ball, but last year both of those factors resolved in his favor. … I mentioned Alex Henery above, and also mentioned that the Eagles' kicking gig is often valuable. Henery is the NCAA's all-time most accurate field goal kicker, and is the career leader in points at Nebraska. He instantly becomes ownable in fantasy leagues, though again, if he stinks it up early in the year, you shouldn't hesitate to drop him. … I don't love the Dolphins offense to say the least, but Dan Carpenter is a talented kicker. Through Week 10 last year, he had five games of 12 fantasy points or more, illustrating the kind of upside he has when he gets attempts. If you told me that by the end of the year, Carpenter will be a top-10 kicker, I wouldn't be shocked.

Draft strategy
Don't waste brain cells thinking about kickers. If your draft features a run on kickers 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 never be very 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 issues later.

Auction strategy
It doesn't matter when in your auction you get your kicker. Just make sure you don't pay more than one dollar 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.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.