For some reason, this is still a debate amongst the average fantasy football player. Even in serious groups that feature a league full of smart football guys that do hours of research and draft prep, this is still somehow a fairly common practice. Every fantasy football expert, including the venerable Matthew Berry always advocates for drafting kickers last. Despite this kickers still get taken too early. According to draft data from Fantasydata.com, in a standard 15 round draft, three to four kickers are taken before rounds 14 and 15. This is totally unnecessary, and I’ll try to prove it as such for two main reasons. First, discerning managers can almost always find a top 12 kicker in the waivers, because the top 12 kickers are never all drafted. Second, the average difference in kicker performance is pretty much negligible.
(Draft ADP taken from Fantasydata.com. Scoring rankings taken from Fantasypros.com. Standard scoring, 12 team league.)
The Best Kickers Often Go Undrafted
Let’s look at each year’s top 12 scoring kickers and where they went in the draft. Six of the top 12 kickers in 2020 went undrafted, including four of the top five. In 2019, eight of the top 12 kickers went undrafted. Three kickers were drafted before round 15 and ended up outside the top 12 scoring kickers. In 2018, six top 12 kickers went undrafted, including the No. 1 kicker Kaimi Fairbairn. Meanwhile the first two kickers off the board finished 17th and 10th, clearly not worth the 12th round pick they costed. 2017 saw seven of the best kickers left on waivers. Just like in 2018, the top scoring kicker, Greg Zuerlein, was not drafted. On the other hand guys like Dan Bailey (25th), Mason Crosby (26th), and Cairo Santos (38th) were.
The problem is that it is incredibly difficult to determine kicking ability and consistency in a fantasy setting, because so much of fantasy kicking is opportunity based. In addition, because opportunity is often not tied to real life performance it is hard to predict. For example, last year Joey Slye was 24th in field goal percentage but ended up the 12th highest scoring kicker simply because he was eighth in field goals attempted. On the other hand Mason Crosby hit 100% of his field goals but he was 29th in attempts and therefore finished outside the top 12. That is why nearly half of the top scoring fantasy kickers in the league are on waivers at some point. Not only that but in all four years at least two of the top five kickers were undrafted.
Does Getting the Best Kicker Even Matter?
The data shows that you can get a top 12 kicker in each fantasy season quite easily just by working the waivers. You can even get top five kickers fairly reliably. But does that even matter? Let’s take a look at the No. 1 scoring kicker versus the No. 12 scoring kicker each year, kicker No. 12 being the theoretical last kicker seeing any playing time. In 2020, Jason Sanders (undrafted by the way) led the league with 163 points scored, while Joey Slye was 12th with 128, which ends up being a 35 point difference. That’s just 2.2 points per game in a 16 week season. Put another way, if a fantasy team scores 100 points per week (probably on the low end), that would average out to be 1600 total points in a season. That 35 points difference is a miniscule 2.2% of your total fantasy score.
What About Other Positions?
Compare this to the QB position, another position where you have exactly 12 starting players. In 2020, No.1 was Kyler Murray at 386.96 points, and No.12 was Ben Roethlisberger at 277.22. That 110 point difference is 6.85 points per week, or 6.3% of an average 1600 score. That’s nearly three times the impact compared to kickers. Going back to 2019 the difference between Lamar Jackson and Tom Brady was even more pronounced. Same thing with 2018’s Patrick Mahomes and Kirk Cousins.
The difference in running back and wide receiver is even bigger. For running back, it was Alvin Kamara’s 294.8 versus No. 24 (the last RB you would start, not even including flex) James Conner at 123.4. For wide receivers it’s Tyreek Hill’s 241.9 versus Robby Anderson’s 125.2. Tight ends also saw a big difference, with Travis Kelce’s 207.8 dwarfing No. 12 Hunter Henry’s 85.3. Even the defense’s difference is higher than kickers. The Steelers 144 was 46 points higher than the No. 12 defense’s 98 points scored. Additionally, unlike other positions that can vary greatly (the 2020 defense difference was 46 points, the 2019 difference was 117!) the kicker difference generally stays the same. From 2012-20, the average difference in points between kicker No. 1 and kicker No. 12 is 37.4 with a high of 44, so this is a trend that persists season after season.
It’s simply not worth drafting kickers before the last possibly round in any circumstance. Fantasy kicker performance is nearly impossible to determine, so why bother spending precious draft picks that could be spent on valuable handcuffs and sleepers on a kicker? Top 12 kickers will always be available on waivers. Not only that, getting a top kicker is almost meaningless. It really begs the question, does fantasy football even need kickers? Matthew Berry (and others) says no. We already don’t play punters for similar reasons, might as well get rid of kickers altogether. Heck let’s just remove special teams as a whole. But that’s an article for another time.