How To Spot A Great Fantasy Football Kicker

·13 min read



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There are a whole lot of terrible justifications for playing a kicker in fantasy football.

Among my favorites: Kicker A’s team will just want to play a close game, taking the conservative route and choosing field goals over touchdowns; Kicker A’s team has a low implied point total, translating to plentiful field goal tries; Kicker A can kick the ball a long way, and we love the long ball, it's fun to watch; Kicker A is playing in the thin air of Denver; Kicker A did well for me last week; Kicker A has that dawg in him.

I’ve tried over the past half decade -- along with a cadre of radicalized kicker truthers on Twitter -- to bring some semblance of process to the kicker matchup evaluation in fantasy football (only legitimate leagues include the kicker spot). There are clear indicators that a kicker might offer a usable fantasy performance beyond scanning recent box scores.

We want kickers on teams favored to win the game -- or within spitting distance of being the Vegas favorite. Why? Kickers are far more likely to see second half field goal attempts if their team is not chasing points (touchdowns).

We want kickers in games with at least a moderate game total. This doesn’t mean we ignore kickers in all but the week’s highest-scoring affairs, but a bottom-barrel game total should have us looking elsewhere for field goals.

Excellent analysis by fantasy writers who know kickers matter -- and are more predictable than most positions in our little game -- has shown nothing matters more than attempts. Accuracy does not matter. Neither do long field goals. Total offensive yards, yards per play, rushing touchdowns, passing touchdowns, turnovers: None of it matters. We seek only attempts. This is the huffing, puffing, soot-spitting engine of the kicker process (we’re looking into greener kicker process alternatives).

Knowing that field goal tries are all that matter, it might be helpful to know which kickers ran hot (and cold) last year, the same way we examine quarterbacks and pass catchers who had good (or bad) touchdown luck a season ago. Expected field goal attempts is a measurement that has served me well, along with the faithful readers of my humble kicker column. Based on a team’s yardage production and game script, expected field goal attempts offers insight into which kickers are seeing more opportunities than they should, and which booters of the pigskin are due.

The bad-faith critics of regression analysis in fantasy football will tell you regression doesn’t explain everything. And yes, that’s true. But it can point us toward players who could be more or less useful if the Regression Reaper wields its scythe.

Below are teams that generated fewer field goal tries in 2021 than we would have expected based on offensive yardage and game flow. It was these teams that delivered some of the most frustrating kicker results of the year.

FG expected
FG expected


The Bad Luck Browns

No team was further under expected field goals than Cleveland in 2021. Chase McLaughlin had just seven games with multiple field goal tries -- five of those were Browns wins, which makes sense for the reasons mentioned above.

Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski in 2021 was once again one of the NFL’s most aggressive play callers on fourth downs -- a decidedly positive development for Browns fans and a less thrilling one for fantasy managers poking around the waiver wire for under-the-radar kicker options.

Cleveland this offseason released journeyman McLaughlin and drafted Cade York out of LSU, where in 2021 he converted 83.3 percent of his field goal attempts and was 5-of-7 on kicks of more than 50 yards. York has reportedly impressed Cleveland coaches and players during OTAs and minicamp

Whether York becomes fantasy relevant in 2022 largely hinges on the Browns’ quarterback situation. The expected year-long suspension for Deshaun Watson, accused of sexual assault by dozens of women, would torpedo York’s fantasy usefulness and make him a streaming option at best. York may be good -- he might be excellent -- but that doesn't matter. Only opportunity matters.

Our Analytics King Is Killing Me

Chargers head coach Brandon Staley, the reigning analytics king of professional football, the guy who will put Troy Aikman in a coma if he goes for another fourth down on LA's side of the field, is destroying his kicker’s opportunity with his aggressive play calling. As a raving analytics dork, I'm torn about this.

Last year the Bolts were fourth in total yardage, a smidge behind Kansas City, and ranked 30th in field goal tries, ahead of only the Seahawks and Browns. Staley’s offense generated 4.44 red zone possessions per game, trailing only the Bills. They were a highly efficient offense, ranking eighth in points per offensive snap. It should all add up to top-end kicker production. But, as you may know, it did not.

That doesn’t mean Chargers kickers were useless in 2021. Dustin Hopkins, unceremoniously booted from Washington before signing with the Chargers, was fantasy’s tenth highest scoring kicker from Week 7 to Week 18, recording multiple field goal tries in eight of his 11 games with LA. The Chargers were miles under their expected field goal attempts when Hopkins signed with the team around midseason; his production in November and December was a good example of kicker regression coming home to roost.

An efficient, high-scoring offense headed by one of the NFL’s best signal callers should create a solid environment for Hopkins in 2022. It’s Staley’s thirst for touchdowns that could undermine his opportunity.

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The Packers Are (Sorta) Inoculated Against Field Goal Attempts

For the second straight season, Matt LaFleur’s team was the most aggressive on fourth downs. It’s a strategy no doubt driven by Aaron Rodgers being under center and having little interest in settling for three points in or near the red zone.

But wait, you say. Green Bay finished 2021 with the ninth most field goal tries. And yes, they did, because the Packers offense gained a lot of yards, moving the ball at will for much of the season. I pointed out last summer that the silver-haired fox Mason Crosby as a regression candidate after the Pack attempted a league-low 16 field goals in 2020 -- about 18 field goal tries under expectation. The problem in 2021, of course, was Crosby’s nightmarish accuracy: He made 25 of his 34 tries, posting a career-low 73.5 percent conversion rate. Nevertheless, the Croz (we’re calling him the Croz) had his chances.

The Packers without red zone maven Davante Adams -- who accounted for nearly 30 percent of the team’s targets inside the ten yard line -- could be slightly less brutally efficient near the end zone paint in 2022. A good (great?) Green Bay defense and a productive, run-based offense could quite easily create consistent opportunities for Crosby in his age-38 season.

Please stop calling Crosby old. Some of us are older than the very handsome and vital Packers kicker.

Our (Very) Conservative Bucs

The Brad-era Bucs have been tough to figure out for field goal purposes. Tampa piles up yardage unlike almost any other team, and has ranked as one of the most conservative fourth down offenses over Brady’s two seasons at the helm, yet ranked 21st in field goal tries in 2021 and 15th in 2020.

The issue, as you may have guessed, is that Brady -- like all great quarterbacks -- doesn’t settle for three pointers in the red zone. Tampa in 2021 scored a touchdown on 65.79 percent of their red zone possessions, second only to Buffalo. In 2020, they were tenth in red zone touchdown rate despite a late-season touchdown scoring lull inside the twenty. Ryan Succop has been passable for fantasy purposes over Brady’s two seasons in Tampa. He finished as K7 in 2020 and K13 in 2021. You could have done worse, as I so often tell my wife.

It’s hard to say whether new Tampa head coach Todd Bowles will be as conservative on fourth down as Bruce Arians was in 2020 and 2021. At his very worst, Succop should be a fine floor option for fantasy managers who don’t feel like grinding the waiver wire every week in search of an upside kicker matchup. The veteran kicker has multiple field goal attempts in 17 of his 33 games (51.55 percent) since the start of the 2020 season.

 

FG expected 2
FG expected 2

 

Fantasy Players Love a Cocky Kicker

If you remember one piece of kicker-related fantasy advice from me, your sixth favorite kicker analyst, remember this: Someone in your league will reach for Evan McPherson rounds and rounds before he should rightfully be drafted. Why? Because people love a kicker with swagger (the zoomers are calling McPherson “swaggy”) and because he captured the public’s attention in the Bengals’ run to the Super Bowl last year. McPherson is a kicker who dances. Enough said.

The only thing fantasy players like more than a long field goal is a long clutch field goal. McPherson had plenty of both in December and January.

You can see McPherson’s opportunity was right in line with his expected field goal attempts during his impressive rookie campaign. That he drilled nine of his 11 attempts of more than 50 yards doesn’t mean a whole lot, since field goal tries of over 50 yards aren’t exactly the stickiest stat. I guess you could tell yourself a story about the Bengals trusting McPherson to try the deep shot after he showed in 2021 that he has glaciers running through his veins. It might not be an entirely incorrect story.

Cincinnati’s ability to create and maintain positive and neutral game script against any opponent led to stunning consistency from McPherson in 2021. He had multiple attempts in 11 of his 16 games, including in nine of the team’s ten regular season wins. Head coach Zac Taylor was the ninth most conservative play caller on fourth downs. That’s certainly not bad for McGoatson.

Just don’t be the one to draft McPherson in the eighth or ninth or tenth round. It’s not a flex on your league mates. It’s a massive self own. Kicker production is far too replaceable to reach for a top option.

Mike Tomlin: High-T Field Goal Lover

The Steelers were a maddening team to figure out in 2021. Pittsburgh’s low-octane offense could barely generate 300 total yards per game -- about the same as the Bears and Lions -- and yet Chris Boswell saw consistent opportunity and finished as the game’s sixth-highest scoring kicker. Shoutout to Mike Tomlin and the Steelers for making me look like a damn fool for the entirety of 2021.

No team, as you can see, was further over their expected field goals last season. Incredibly, Boswell had at least three field goal tries in nine games. I’m not sure what to make of this beyond pointing out that the Steelers’ red zone touchdown production fell off the proverbial cliff in 2021; Pittsburgh managed a touchdown on just 54 percent of their possessions inside the 20.

Combine that with Pittsburgh being the third most conservative fourth down decision making team and you have a good number of chip shots for the Boz (we’re calling him the Boz now). Forty-five percent of the Boz’s field goal tries came inside 40 yards. If Mitchell Trubisky can keep the Pittsburgh offense afloat in 2022, I suppose Boswell could once again stumble into weekly opportunity thanks to Tomlin’s adoration for the three pointer.

I’m not mad. Stop saying I’m mad.

Don’t Prioritize Folk, Folks

Say what you will about Bill Belichick, but you gotta respect the man for going all the way with his anti-analytics bit in 2021. I love a coach who can commit to a shtick.

The Patriots simply lived to drive the ball into scoring range with seemingly little intention of crossing the goal line, settling for field goal after field goal and turning journeyman Nick Folk into an elite fantasy option. Folk notched a league-high 10.4 fantasy points per game thanks to New England’s sputtering run-based offense.

Folk, naturally, was miles over his expected field goal tries for much of the 2021 season -- a screaming regression candidate for months. The Regression Reaper came for the wily veteran late in the season as the Pats lost three of their final four games -- failing to produce the necessary game script for second half field goals -- and Folk totaled three field goal tries over his final four games. He cost many a fantasy manager in the fantasy postseason.

The loss of Josh McDaniel and the installation of offensive neophytes Joe Judge and Matt Patricia as some sort of unholy co-offensive coordinators hardly inspires confidence heading into the 2022 season. Maybe Belichick’s hyper-conservative fourth down decision making continues and makes Folk serviceable in fantasy leagues again. Or maybe the bottom falls out and the New England offense can no longer support a fantasy-viable kicker.

Managers will certainly target Folk in drafts this summer after he proved to be the waiver wire pick of the year in 2021. We foster strange emotional connections for waiver wire kickers. But I’m giving what the teens are calling the “nah wave” to Folk in 2022.

Stray Kicker Thoughts

-I wouldn't worry too much about Minnesota being 4.11 field goal tries over expected in 2021. The team's new offense is expected to be more pass-heavy and aggressive, a philosophical change that could lead to more yards and hopefully more field goals for Greg Joseph. Of course, the loss of uber-conservative Mike Zimmer could mean fewer short field goals for Joseph. Zimmer ranked as the league's ninth most conservative fourth down decision maker since the start of the 2019 season (my favorite Zimmer move was when the cranky old man went for it on fourth and three from midfield with a run up the middle that would be stuffed by the opposing defense. Zimmer would then blame the analytics after the game.)

-Brandon McManus will likely be a popular redraft pick for two reasons: Fantasy managers love more than anything to talk about the thin air of Denver and the Broncos got a small quarterback upgrade in Russell Wilson this offseason. The big-footed McManus (remember: long field goals don't matter) should be among the league leaders in field goal tries if Wilson can keep Denver's offense moving up and down the field. Wilson has a history of supporting fantasy-viable kickers: In 2020, Jason Myers ranked as fantasy's ninth highest scoring kicker; in 2019, he was 12th.

-Fantasy managers, blessed with the attention span of a gnat, may have forgotten about the bespectacled Rodrigo Blankenship, who as a rookie in 2020 finished as fantasy's fifth highest scoring kicker on a Colts team that was well above their expected field goals. Reportedly recovered from a hip injury that ended his 2021 campaign prematurely, Blankenship is the odds-on favorite to kick for what could be a solid Indy offense in 2022. Frank Reich's team is one year removed from generating the seventh most field goal attempts with a Carson Wentz-led offense. Matt Ryan, a significant upgrade over Wentz, could help Hot Rod return to fantasy flory in 2022.