Friday, September 14, 2012

Fantasy Football: the Kicker Stigma

It's conventional wisdom in fantasy football that you wait until the very end to draft a kicker. Most of the "veterans" in my league voiced the opinion during this year's draft. There's even a commercial about it, where NFL.com advises you to make fun of your college buddies for drafting a kicker before the last round. On the surface, it makes sense: while some kickers are clearly better fantasy options than others, kicker is the least likely position to come up with a massive play and pull out a surprise win for your team. But does the math hold up?

Let's start with the extreme case: the incomparable David Akers, by far the most valuable fantasy kicker in the league. Akers dominated the kicker landscape last year to the tune of 182 points, surpassing the second-highest scoring kicker by 32 points. His average points per game last year was 11.375 (ESPN standard scoring), which is production you'd be happy to see from your starting tight end or second wide receiver. Akers actually scored higher than fantasy luminaries Darren Sproles, Frank Gore, and Roddy White.

Does it make sense to draft Akers before you fill up all your other starter slots? Probably not. And you obviously need at least one backup wide receiver and running back to hedge against injury and plan for bye weeks. But fantasy football, at least in ESPN's system, gives a whopping seven bench slots. Even after securing a backup quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and tight end, there are still three picks remaining--and it's not clear that even the first backup is going to be worth more than your kicker.

It's tough to imagine a scenario where your backup running back is going to score more than 182 points in a season. For an eight-team league, the third RB selected by any given player can expect to score in the range of 140-160 points (120-140 for a third WR). And that's assuming the backup starts every week. For most teams, the backup is going to have a limited workload, subbing in case of injury or a bye week or a particularly favorable matchup.

Plus, by the time the draft reaches the "backup RB/WR" stage, the marginal decrease per player pick is negligibly small. For a backup running back in the range we're talking about, you can expect to lose about 3 points over the course of the season for drafting the next-best player. The drop in expected production from, say, Pierre Thomas to Brandon Jacobs shouldn't be enough to overdraft Thomas so he can sit on your bench most games.

However--and here's the big caveat--the same marginal analysis suggests that overdrafting a kicker doesn't make any sense either. We'll set aside David Akers, the clear overachiever of the 2011 kicker class, for a moment. The average marginal decrease over the second- through twelfth-best kickers was a mere 1.5 points. In other words, you're only losing about 15 points over the course of the season (or less than 1 point per game) by taking kicker number 12 over kicker number 2. That analysis suggests that once somebody drafts the clear outlier Akers, you're safe waiting as long as possible to get a kicker. You may have emotional attachment to Sebastian Janikowski over Robbie Gould, but you shouldn't have the same mathematical attachment.

The only remaining question: how much of a draft premium should David Akers have? That depends on how likely you think his chances are of repeating his outstanding 2011 performance. If you think that 182 is no fluke, it makes sense to draft him before any of your bench players, and arguably before your second starting wide receiver or your "flex slot". Only six running backs, four wide receivers, and two tight ends outscored Akers in 2011. That puts him in the top fifteen most valuable non-quarterbacks in all of football. 182 points is a lot, and you're going to like getting that production, regardless of where it comes from. If, however, you think he'll regress to the mean and score in the (more human) 150-160 range, there's little advantage to taking Akers any earlier than the last round or two.

In summary, the conventional wisdom regarding kickers seems to hold up, but it's because of the remarkably similar production among first-tier fantasy kickers rather than a systematic lack of value that the position carries. You're justified in taking a gamble on a kicker that you expect to have unusually strong production for the position, but after the lone superstar is gone, there's no significant advantage to gain from drafting any kicker over the next-best.