When it comes to kickers, ability only means so much. Savvy fantasy league owners realize this and avoid exerting too much mental energy securing an "elite" kicker.
Heck, if getting the guy with the best leg was all there was to it, Detroit's Jason Hanson would lead the league in kicking points perennially. Few if any boom 'em longer or straighter.
Instead, there's much more to consider when opting for your kicker. including that in most leagues, it's pointless to carry more than one kicker at a time. Only with the kicking position can you claim some slouch off the free agent scrap heap and have him boot five field goals for you the following Sunday. And unless your league has 30 teams, there's always a kicker available who can help you.
Get one you like, late in a draft, and go with him until his bye week, then replace him. Simple.
I don't want to imply, however, that there's no thought process or strategy involved in getting a kicker. There certainly is, but it's atypical compared to how you'd generally fill out the rest of your roster.
Like a closer in baseball, kickers are more dependent on the circumstances of their team than they are their own prowess. The aforementioned Hanson, for instance, has enjoyed a couple of standout seasons from a points perspective, but mostly he's been middle-of-the-pack because he toils for the inept Lions, who never seem to put together the offensive consistency necessary to frequent the red zone.
Contrast Hanson to, say, Pittsburgh's Todd Peterson. Put them both on the same team playing in the same stadium, and Hanson's ability to nail 55-yarders as well as his consistency would rank him far ahead of Peterson, who nearly lost his job with Kansas City two years ago before bouncing back last season. And yet, I'd bet dimes to doughnuts that Peterson finishes this season with more points than Hanson.
Why? Because Peterson is likely to get a lot more opportunities. The Steelers' defense is more proficient at forcing turnovers in scoring territory, the team typically involved in "field goal battles" often decided by last-second kicks. Those scores associated with big kicking games, like 16 and 19 and 23, are common Steelers results.
The Lions, on the other hand, get behind so much that they're forced to go for it on 4th-and-8 at the opponents' 30 rather than taking the 47-yard field goal try. They're so unpredictable. who knows what they'll do?
With the above example in mind, let's take a closer look at the factors most likely to affect a kicker's fantasy value.
Can he make the longer field goals consistently? Preferably, I want my kicker to be steady on the kicks between 40-49 yards. If he can put 'em through from 50+, all the better.
Does he kick for a team with a good offense? Not an absolute must, but generally preferable. It stands to reason that a team that averages 26 points a game is going to have, over the long run, more opportunities for the kicker to score than a team that averages 22. But really, you're just playing the percentages. It's akin to buying 10 lottery tickets because it gives you twice as good a chance of winning millions as five tickets.
Does his team play home games in a dome? This is a nice additional aspect to have on your side, because it takes bad weather out of the equation for at least half the kicker's games. And inside or out, 90 percent of kickers will tell you it's easier to boot a ball off artificial turf.
Is the kicker a veteran? Young kickers are very risky, because there's rarely any assurance they will keep their job in the event of a moderate slump. Personally, I like guys who have been regular kickers for at least three or four seasons.
Does the kicker's team figure to be good but not dominant? This isn't often considered, but teams that figure to play a lot of close games typically have more need for 3 points at a time.
As I write this, I just realized that I've contradicted myself. On the one hand, I've made it clear that I don't believe you should put too high a priority on kickers. On the other, I've just listed five factors to consider. So what gives, right?
Well, we still want to have fun with it. To that end, allow me to list my top 5 kickers and the reasons for their respective presence on that list.
1. Mike Vanderjagt, Indianapolis - Proficient offense, domed stadium, consistent kicker, good range.
2. Jeff Wilkins, St. Louis - Same as Vandy except the Rams are too efficient in the red zone.
3. Jason Elam, Denver - Because he seems to be near the top just about every year.
4. David Akers, Philadelphia - Similar qualifications to Pittsburgh's Peterson except he's a better kicker.
5. Jason Hanson, Detroit - His career pattern suggests he's due for a very productive season.
Others very good ones (in no particular order) - John Carney, New Orleans; Todd Peterson, Pittsburgh; Sebastian Janikowski, Oakland; Martin Gramatica, Tampa Bay; John Hall, NY Jets.
My favorite sleeper - Jay Feeley, Atlanta