Should we ban kickers in fantasy football?

Right here at the top, let’s acknowledge the fact that I will almost certainly lose the kicker battle. Kickers will eventually disappear from fantasy football — maybe not next year, but soon. It’s happening. The anti-kicker movement has all the momentum.

A few weeks back, ESPN’s Matthew Berry jumped into the war on kickers, joining this dude and these dudes and innumerable others. Our man Noise is a notorious kicker-hater…

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The Athletic’s Jake Ciely is actually the father of the #BanKickers push, just for the record. He was Bironas’d back in ’07 and has raged against the position ever since.

With so many prominent analysts now aligned with Jake, it seems likely that default scoring formats at major platforms will ultimately change, eliminating kickers from our fantasy lives. Before they go, I’d like to build a case to keep them in the mix, at least in your private leagues.

The argument begins with this simple fact…

Fantasy should mirror the real game. In reality, kicking is critical

As a Bears fan, I am acutely aware of the necessity of reliable kicking. Also, we all just watched the Rams advance to the Super Bowl thanks in a big way to Greg Zuerlein’s 165 yards worth of made kicks — including the clutchiest possible 57-yarder in OT.

Greg Zuerlein, GOAT among kickers. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Greg Zuerlein, GOAT among kickers. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

There hasn’t been a point in the history of American football or its antecedents in which kicking was not a vital skill. It’s arguably the defining action of the game. We had kicking long before we had the forward pass. We had kicking before helmets, snapping, or rules covering down-and-distance. There has never not been kicking.

Personally, I like my fantasy scoring systems to recognize as many in-game actions as possible that contribute to real-life winning. The fantasy version of the game should reflect the things that matter most in reality. Kicking isn’t a garnish; it’s an essential part of the meal.

More roster positions means more decisions, which makes for a more challenging league

Anti-kicker agitators, including Jake and Matthew, typically suggest replacing the position with an extra flex spot, which ignores the fact that we can just choose to add another flex without eliminating anything. Or we can add two flexes. Perhaps three — and/or a second quarterback or tight end (or both). If you’re looking for a more competitive, challenging league that rewards roster depth and adept management, the easiest way to achieve that end is to add positions, not eliminate them.

(I’m actually a fan of giving kickers eligibility for flex spots, but I accept that most of the fantasy community isn’t ready for multi-kicker formats. I’ll stand down … for now.)

Default scoring for kickers is pretty bad. Let’s fix it

OK, I cannot defend Yahoo’s public league scoring for kickers, which, like other major platforms, awards bonus points based on distance. And we begin awarding those bonuses at only 40 yards, an exceedingly makable kick (unless you’re any of these gentlemen). NFL kickers successfully made 76.3 percent of all attempts between 40 and 49 yards this past season. They also made 63.8 percent of kicks greater than 50 yards, which hardly seems bonus-worthy. The 50-plus yard field goal is not a particularly rare or exotic thing.

Really, it just doesn’t seem right to assign a greater fantasy point value to any event than is assigned in real life, so the four- or five-point field goal probably needs to go away. (It’s worth noting, however, that there was a period in football’s history, over a century ago, when field goals were worth five points and touchdowns only four, so if you want to play by nineteenth century rules in your modern fantasy league, go for it). I’m also an advocate for significant deductions for missed kicks, of any distance. These are typically major swing plays within games, often with disastrous field position consequences. If we’re awarding three points in fantasy for a made kick, I’ve got no problem with a three-point deduction for a miss.

With a few small scoring tweaks, we can deemphasize fantasy kickers without erasing the position. If we limit the value of all field goals to three points and institute deductions for misses, then the highest scoring kickers in our game would average no more than 9-10 points per week.

Drafting kickers is a primary way we express our belief in specific NFL offenses

If you were bullish on the NFL’s highest-scoring teams entering the season, then A) you deserve to be rewarded in your fantasy life and B) there’s a very good chance you drafted one of our game’s top kickers. It’s not as if season-long kicker points are purely accidental or unrelated to team success.

Here’s a look at this year’s highest-scoring fantasy kickers on a per-game basis, removing yardage bonuses:

1. Greg Zuerlein, LAR
2. Ka’imi Fairbairn, HOU
3. Justin Tucker, BAL
4. Harrison Butker, KC
5. Will Lutz, NO
6. Aldrick Rosas, NYG
7. Mason Crosby, GB
8. Stephen Gostkowski, NE

And here’s last year’s list:

1. Greg Zuerlein, LAR
2. Harrison Butker, KC
3. Stephen Gostkowski, NE
4. Robbie Gould, SF
5. Chris Boswell, PIT
6. Justin Tucker, BAL
7. Will Lutz, NO
8. Matt Bryant, ATL

Both groups are loaded with players who were associated with winning teams and prolific offenses, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. This year, the kickers from the NFL’s four highest scoring teams — all of which made the conference championship games — each ranked inside the top eight. Greg the Leg remained No. 1 in points per game. Naturally, we see overlap between the lists, because elite offenses routinely produce elite kickers. This seems so obvious as to not require explanation, but here we are.

It may be true that week-to-week kicker variance bothers you, or that we collectively struggle to make good kicker choices on draft day. But the fact is, season-long kicker performance isn’t utterly random or beyond our ability to forecast. Chris Raybon has produced excellent work on the topic of weekly kicker projection, and Denny Carter might just be our nation’s premier kicker specialist/enthusiast. This stuff isn’t alchemy.

If your issue is that you dislike anything that isn’t extremely predictable on a weekly basis, then I would suggest you start a point-per-snap league.

Here’s the bottom line…

Whatever else kickers might be, they are not dart throws. They certainly are not all equally skilled. You don’t need to be a Rams fan or kicker fetishist to appreciate the edge that Zuerlein provides. Many of us have bad-beat stories related to kickers, but it’s highly unusual for this position to produce monstrous, week-tilting scoring totals. This season, there were only 15 games in which anyone attempted five or more field goals, and just six games with five or more makes.

Kickers aren’t killing you, fantasy owner. They aren’t even inconveniencing you. The position is essential in the modern NFL, just as it was in the ancient NFL. And it was a very big deal in the pre-NFL era, too. If a position impacts winning and losing in reality, then I’m all for including it in the fantasy version of any game. (You don’t want to hear my take on punters, I’m quite sure).

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