We spend the bulk of our time discussing the power and glory positions of running back, quarterback and wide receiver when analyzing the fantasy landscape for the coming season. Let's face it, the guys under center and the tailbacks amassing 20 carries per game are far more relevant than the seldom-used tight end on most squads. With that said, nobody bats an eye when that bold owner steps to the podium, thrusts his fist in the air and selects Tony Gonzalez at the end of the second round (drafted 25th overall on average in Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Football PLUS drafts). Grumblings of "best player at the position" and "five straight seasons with six or more touchdowns" coincide with the room scrambling to find the tight end page in whatever guide they're using.
How come the first guy to butcher the name of a kicker or bark out a team defense is met with a chorus of boos, chuckles and verbal abuse for the rest of the day?
On the team defense side, it's difficult to predict, in the age of free agency, how 11 guys will jell. You have to worry about the health of eleven guys. If Baltimore's Ray Lewis goes down with an injury (beware the Madden cover jinx), are the Ravens nearly as potent? Seattle's defense was on the rise with the addition of Grant Wistrom, but do his nagging injuries and Chad Brown's broken leg return the Seahawks to the bottom of the pack?
For all the issues swirling in the wind regarding drafting a defense, nobody gets it quite like the guy who reaches for a kicker in the fifth or sixth round. At least since the SNL parody of the Super Bowl Shuffle with a group of smallish men representing kickers, these guys get no respect. Continued rebroadcasts of the infamous Garo Yepremian "pass" don't help.
Let's take a peek into the worlds of defenses and kickers.
Someone eventually has to step out of the box and select a place-kicker. In most "expert" drafts, this phenomenon doesn't occur until the ninth or 10th round. In those rooms, backup running backs fly off the board, and third and fourth wide receiver options are decimated. The guy who wheels the oxygen tank to the left tackle holds more appeal. I don't believe in reaching early for a kicker. The difference between the top guy and the middle of the road is minimal on a per-game basis, and an extra TD or two by the offense reduces your kicker to the land of extra points.
Like the tight end position with Gonzalez, two kickers are selected far earlier than most: Indianapolis' Mike Vanderjagt (54th on average in Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Football PLUS drafts) and St. Louis' Jeff Wilkins (70th on average). They lapped the field in 2003, scoring more than 20 points more than the next kicker (Matt Stover). After them, it's another round before the third kicker comes off the board (usually David Akers of Philadelphia). Then, barring a mini-run of three or four kickers in the 10th or 11th rounds, all of the kicker activity occurs in the final two rounds.
It's highly unlikely that Vanderjagt goes a perfect 37-for-37 on field goal attempts in 2004 as he did last season. Seventeen of Vanderjagt's attempts came within 30 yards. So that means that 17 drives stalled inside of the opponent's 15. What happens this year when a handful or more of those drives find the house instead? Suddenly, you're trading three points for one. No thanks.
Wilkins stands as a great example of what happens to a kicker's point total when the offense is clicking. He was the only player to attempt more than 40 field goals in 2003, connecting on 39 of them and racking up fantasy points like a pinball machine.
In 2002, the highly touted Rams offense sputtered out of the gate and never got it rolling, leaving Wilkins with a feeble 25 attempts. That would have placed him in the bottom eight kickers in attempts in 2003.
Take a step further back and look at his 2001 production. He kicked 23 field goals and a monstrous 58 PATs behind MVP Kurt Warner. That's 36 fewer points than in last season's outburst. Can the same be coming for Vanderjagt this season with Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James looking for new contracts?
Further kicker fodder …
The efficiency of the Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots help to make viable fantasy options of their kickers. Last season, Gary Anderson was dusted off of the scrap heap to replace the injured Joe Nedney after Week 1 and responded by posting the fifth-highest point total among kickers. There's no question that his name went uncalled on draft day. With the same coaching staff and style and arguably a better running back in place, Nedney is a late 13th-round selection in Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Football PLUS drafts. Go figure.
Adam Vinatieri finished with 112 points in 2003 (10th among kickers), successfully converting 25 attempts. This was in a down year, when he missed nine attempts. He has scored more than 100 points in eight straight seasons. Vinatieri is money.
Seventeen kickers booted between 20 and 27 field goals a year ago. Sebastian Janikowski and Paul Edinger didn't have as many attempts overall, but they still booted nine field goals each from 40-49 yards while ranking among the lowest-scoring kickers who played in every one of their teams' games. Olindo Mare and Jason Hanson each kicked four field goals from 50 yards or beyond.
Here's my current top 10 list of kickers, none of whom should be drafted, in my humble opinion, until round eight or nine.
Mike Vanderjagt, Indianapolis Colts
David Akers, Philadelphia Eagles
Adam Vinatieri, New England Patriots
Jeff Wilkins, St. Louis Rams
Matt Stover, Baltimore Ravens
Sebastian Janikowski, Oakland Raiders
To bring this part of the discussion to a close, only nine kickers have been drafted in 100 percent of Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Football PLUS leagues. That means there are a lot of kickers on the waiver wire and opportunities for owners to play the matchup game against soft defenses.
I feel the same way about team defenses as I do about kickers, although the Baltimore Ravens and New England defenses are quite tempting. Both yield a high count of turnovers, and the opportunistic blitz packages and exciting playmakers will provide a handful of touchdowns.
I have to think that the teams terrorized last year by the Ravens' Ed Reed have made strides on punt coverage this offseason, and part of Baltimore's appeal will be lost. But the Ravens return all 11 starters, and the level of trust among players is high.
New England's defensive unit led the NFL in interceptions last season and finished sixth in sacks. The Patriots also gave up a paltry 14.9 points per game. And if anything, they improved this offseason with the draft selection of Vince Wilfork and the return of Rosevelt Colvin.
However, as much as I like these units, I'll let somebody else use a fourth-round selection on them. I dove in early for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a few years back and was happy to watch them yield few points – but absolutely crushed by the lack of sacks and turnovers. Only 11 defensive teams are being selected in 100 percent of Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Football PLUS leagues, showing the wide range of opinion on the value of defenses. In an "experts" draft in which I participated, no team defenses went off the board before the 10th round, when New England went first, followed closely by Baltimore. I waited another two rounds before selecting Philadelphia (pre-Kearse injuries and the loss of N.D. Kalu).
If you include return men with your defenses, suddenly Kansas City bolts up the list on the strength of Dante Hall and Carolina gets even stronger with Rod "He Hate Me" Smart. It should be part of the decision process, but if you don't get points for return yards, are you banking on a guy going the distance?
Now, I don't disagree that Baltimore and New England are the superior units on the board, but are they a full seven rounds better than Minnesota? Or Jacksonville, which stood as the best defense of the second half in 2003? Fantasy owners still select Tampa Bay and Miami early (seventh round on average) based on reputation and past achievement. The Tampa Bay defense lost its identity with the departures of Warren Sapp and John Lynch. With a decided lack of a running game in Miami, the Dolphins defense will spend a lot of time on the field, opening the door to wearing down in the fourth quarter.
Here is my current list of the top 10 defenses. Again, unless you're receiving a massive bounty for INTs or shutouts, you can still find a top defense in the eighth or ninth round.
New England Patriots
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I'm not going to deny the importance of team defenses in the grand scheme of fantasy football. Last season, a number of the top one-game performances were turned in by dominating defenses. But, Baltimore and New England weren't always the top performers. Teams such as Minnesota, Atlanta and Miami turned in big one-day totals. All it takes is one errant flat pass or a knuckleball on a sideline route to add eight points (two for the INT and six for the TD) to your defense's total.
To best illustrate the point, I again use the Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Football PLUS draft results. To draft one of these top kickers or defenses, you have to pass on No. 1 running backs such as Duce Staley and Thomas Jones or big-time playmakers Javon Walker or Charles Rogers. I'd rather take my shot with one of these guys than wait on geriatrics Curtis Martin, Eddie George or, gulp, Emmitt Smith to round out my backfield. I'll hoard backs and wait for the desperate trade offer that comes from someone who left himself thin at the position by reaching on a kicker or defense.
There's some food for thought as you hit draft day.