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According to the Data: How Important Are Kickers and Defenses?

Keith Platte

Keith Platte

Keith Platte writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.


As a veteran fantasy football player, I have reached what I call "Position Analysis Limit." This means I have mined as much data as I can and feel confident in my strategy and player rankings for QB, RB, WR and TE. As more and more websites are created with fantasy football rankings, I am shifting my focus toward the often neglected positions: Kicker and Defense. In the past, Defenses and Kickers were afterthoughts, generally selected at the end or relatively close to the end of drafts. However, I am re-examining this strategy and asking: should Kickers or Defenses actually be targeted, and what is the value of a top Defense or Kicker have when compared to the "average" for these positions?

Let's start with Kickers:


I analyzed the last three years of data for Kickers, i.e., field-goals made by distance and extra points. I converted the three seasons of data into points from four common league providers (Yahoo, ESPN, and CBS). I then calculated the season points average of the top five, 6-12, 13-32 and the league average for the four scoring systems. I also converted the data in Pts/G Avg.

The results are below.

Avg of 3 Yrs Yahoo ESPN NFL CBS
Top 5 162.2 157.9 153.8 153.8 Top 5
Top 6-12 146.1 141.5 137.3 137.3 Top 6-12
Top 13-32 113.8 108.6 107.0 107.0 Top 13-32
Avg (32) 128.4 123.5 120.9 120.9 Avg (32)

Avg Pts/G Yahoo ESPN NFL CBS
Top 5 10.1 9.9 9.6 9.6 Top 5
Top 6-12 9.1 8.8 8.6 8.6 Top 6-12
Top 13-32 7.1 6.8 6.7 6.7 Top 13-32
Avg (32) 8.0 7.7 7.6 7.6 Avg (32)


Based on the data, there are benefits to having a top-5 kicker, to the tune of an extra point per game when compared to the next set of kickers. However, the drop from 6-12 to 13-32 doubles to two points. So, this means to draft a top-five kicker, right? Well, here is the catch - over the last three years only one kicker (and one team) has been in the top five: Stephen Gostkowski. That one team is San Francisco, whose current kicker is Phil Dawson. Basically itīs kind of a crap shoot for a top-five kicker to live up to his preseason ADP; however, when looking at the top 10, these kickers showed up two out of the three years: Justin Tucker, Dan Bailey, Matt Prater and Mason Crosby. What does this mean for us?

1. Waiting to draft a Kicker (say last two or three rounds) is okay because there is not a lot of stability in the top positions, and the drop off isnīt that steep when going from top five to 6-12.

2. Target these kickers on draft day:

a. Stephen Gostkowski
b. Phil Dawson
c. Justin Tucker
d. Dan Bailey
e. Matt Prater
f. Mason Crosby

3. No matter whom you draft, if your kicker isn't scoring at least 7-8 pts/g, check the waiver wire and upgrade.


Now on to the Defenses - this gets a bit trickier. I say this because of the variations in scoring systems. Of the four common service provides, all are similar when looking at turnovers and sacks. However, the variation begins when it comes to scoring for points allowed, yards allowed (ESPN and CBS have this in standard leagues), and punt and kickoff return touchdowns.

In order to describe the relation between the scoring awarded for points allowed and yards allowed per game, I created linear regression models. For each of the four scoring systems, these models use the defense's season average of points allowed and yards allowed to predict the fantasy points for the season. While these models are not exact, they are close the actual FF points earned in a season based on a per-game basis. This beats mining all the individual game data over the last three years.


I followed the same process as with the Kickers, and looked at the 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons. I converted all the statistics into fantasy points as per the four scoring systems. Next, I calculated the average fantasy points for each season, and each scoring system. The Defenses were then placed into five groups: top three, top 4-6, 7-12, 13-32 and the entire league. With this data, I averaged the three seasons for the five groups and converted the data into Pts/G average. Below are the results.

Avg of 3 Yrs Yahoo ESPN NFL CBS
Top 3 190.1 171.9 188.3 235.7 Top 3
Top 4-6 163.8 144.3 160.3 210.5 Top 4-6
Top 7-12 141.2 117.7 137.6 186.2 Top 7-12
Top 13-32 104.9 76.0 102.5 143.2 Top 13-32
Avg (32) 125.2 99.2 122.6 166.2 Avg (32)

Avg Pts/G Yahoo ESPN NFL CBS
Top 3 11.9 10.7 11.8 14.7 Top 3
Top 4-6 10.2 9.0 10.0 13.2 Top 4-6
Top 7-12 8.8 7.4 8.6 11.6 Top 7-12
Top 13-32 6.6 4.8 6.4 9.0 Top 13-32
Avg (32) 7.8 6.2 7.7 10.4 Avg (32)


According to the data, there are benefits to having a top-six defense, and it is worth drafting a top-three defense. The difference between the top three and the top six is a solid 1.6-1.8 points per game. The point difference between a top three Defense and a top 7-12 Defense increased to 3.1 to 3.9. From the data, only two teams showed up in the top three for most of the scoring systems two of the past three years: Seattle and Chicago. (Note, the Bears did NOT crack the top 20 in any of the scoring systems in 2013, so buyer beware).

Defenses to make the top six two out of the three years include San Francisco, Cincinnati and New England. So, I know you are asking yourself, what about Carolina and Arizona, right? Great question. In 2011 Arizona was mid-pack and Carolina was terrible. In 2012 both teams were middle of the pack. In 2013 the two teams were in the top six. So what does this mean for us?

1. Defenses make a bigger difference than kickers, and it's therefore more important to have a good one than a good kicker.

2. We'd need to do more research to discover the extent to which defenses live up to their preseason ADPs, and unless we find a strong correlation between the two, it's wise not to target defenses until the latter rounds of your drafts.

3. Once the top-six defenses are off the board, there's no reason to take a defense until your last or second-to-last pick.

4. Once the season starts, if your Defense isn't getting you at least 6-9 pts/g (based on your league scoring), hit the waiver wire.