Draft kickers late, draft wisely
Eagles' middling red-zone efficiency opened door to chances for David Akers
Akers' consistency still make him worthwhile kicker despite being free agent
No kicker has finished No. 1 in fantasy two straight years over last decade
Let's be clear: There is no such thing as a must-have kicker. They are completely interchangeable when it comes to fantasy football. In fact, a debate or ranking discussion of kickers just isn't worth your time.
The Eagles apparently agree. They drafted a kicker in Alex Henery, apparently confident it is the system that makes the kicker, not vice versa.
And after doing so, the new CBA has allowed David Akers, the most consistent kicker in fantasy for the past decade, to become an unrestricted free agent, looking for a place like Philly that was so good to him and his fantasy owners.
He had everything with the Eagles:
High-scoring offense? Check.
Strong running game? Check.
Stout defense supporting him? Check.
Year-to-year consistency? Checkmate.
Now all that goodness is reserved for Henery.
The Eagles might not have wanted the veteran any longer, but fantasy owners are still better off picking Akers, wherever he winds up, over the unknown in Henery with the Eagles.
"You want a kicker with a solid track record," said the 36-year-old Akers, a 14-year veteran who led the NFL in scoring last season with 143 points. "I would hope you want someone with consistency, accuracy from 40 to 50 yards, on a team with a good offense and automatic from 45 yards and under."
Akers' 2010 season, the second-best in terms of scoring in his career, was the result of, among other things, a Philadelphia offense that put him in position for 38 field-goal attempts (fifth most in the league) and 47 extra-point tries (second). In '08 and '09 he also led the NFL in field-goal attempts, with 40 and 37 respectively, finishing second on the scoring list in both seasons.
In terms of three-year averages, he's the undisputed champ. It hasn't mattered who has been the quarterback or running back in Philly.
Last year, the Eagles had 58 drives that reached the red zone, which was tied for fourth best in the league. However, they scored just 31 touchdowns on those drives, or 53.4 percent of the time, which ranked 14th. In other words, Philadelphia was exceptional at getting the ball into the red zone but just middle-of-the-road when it came to punching it in. That's why Akers got his kicks.
"It start[ed] with the explosion on offense because we stretch[ed] the field and then the field shrunk," he said. "You wind up getting stuck inside the 20, and you've got to make those kicks."
It is a system that could make Henery the highest-scoring rookie in fantasy, seriously. Maybe he is even the No. 1 kicker in fantasy.
The Eagles' offense has the potential to improve with quarterback Michael Vick as the clear helmsman from Day 1 and running back LeSean McCoy entering his second season as the starter. But the team still does not have a consistent enough red-zone threat on the ground or through the air to think that its efficiency inside the 20-yard line will improve enough to keep their kicker on the sideline.
All this said, you still should pick Akers -- no matter where he calls home -- over Henery. Your kicker should be one of your last two picks on Draft Day anyway, but Akers' year-to-year trustworthiness makes him more worthy of the pick. Kickers are sketchy, particularly underdeveloped ones.
Heck, it took the likes of Sebastian Janikowski years to finally elevate to No. 1 last season.
Also, Akers might finally get away from the cold-weather kicking in Philly. We already know his durability is second to none. He has missed just four games since becoming a starter in his second season, and those came six years ago (due to a torn right hamstring).
"I haven't had to fight through many nagging injuries," Akers said. "My body has held up well."
There aren't any must-have kickers, but Akers is the closest one can get -- regardless of what the Eagles think.
Sleeper: Akers, FA
Yes, without a team, Akers is our pick here. Leaving the certainty of Philly drops him perhaps from the No. 1 kicker to target on draft day to barely draftable, but he is extremely valuable at that price.
Breakout: Henery, Eagles
OK, so it is hard to be completely down on Henery, assuming he starts the season as the Eagles placekicker. He won't be a sleeper, because he is going as high as No. 2 at the position in some draft averages. He is certainly worth drafting, even if there is a chance he goes bust -- like so many young kickers before him.
Bust: Janikowski, Raiders
A kicker hasn't repeated as the No. 1 at his position in the past decade. Janikowski is the reigning fantasy kicker scoring champ and we think he'll continue that trend. Is it possible he goes off the board before any other kicker in your league. It is just as possible he finishes outside the top 12 at the position with that sketchy quarterback (Jason Campbell) the Raiders are going with.
Here are our initial kicker rankings by tiers:
These players are listed with their teams before free agency officially begins Friday.
1. Stephen Gostkowski NE
2. Mason Crosby GB
3. Nate Kaeding SD
Each of these has been a fantasy kicker scoring champ and each is backed by a potent offense led by a stud quarterback. While kickers tend to score more through field goals and field goals tend to be kicked by teams that don't throw as many TDs, the safest bets on draft day are the guys certain to be with potent offenses.
4. Matt Bryant ATL
5. Adam Vinatieri IND
6. Garrett Hartley NO
7. Sebastian Janikowski OAK
Of the top two tiers, only Bryant hasn't had a season as the No. 1 scoring kicker in fantasy. But this is shaping up as another great season for the Falcons, QB Matt Ryan and Bryant in the Georgia Dome. He gets dome games and warm-weather division games as a bonus.
8. Neil Rackers HOU
9. David Akers FA
10. Nick Folk NYJ
11. Josh Brown STL
Note that we list Akers among the kickers who should be considered a standard fantasy league starter, and not Henery. Rackers has had his moments and has a potent offense and QB, while Folk and Brown have young QBs with strong running games -- that's a recipe for a lot of stalled drives in the red zone.
12. Dan Carpenter MIA
13. Alex Henery PHI
14. Rob Bironas TEN
15. Robbie Gould CHI
16. Billy Cundiff BAL
17. David Buehler DAL|
18. Ryan Succop KC
19. Shaun Suisham PIT
20. Lawrence Tynes NYG
Whatever you do -- even in leagues with limited transactions -- don't pick two kickers. You are wasting roster space. Just pick your kicker last and rotate him week to week based on matchups. These all figure to be popular options off the waiver wire in weeks they are facing subpar opponents. You won't be disappointed with any of these guys as a last-round pick.
21. Jason Hanson DET
22. Josh Scobee JAC
23. Olindo Mare SEA
24. Connor Barth TB
This last group figures to lead the best of the rest. The offenses are sketchy, though, so don't bother drafting them. They really need a favorable matchup to be worth considering in a starting lineup.
Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy. Hit him up. He honestly has nothing better to do with his free time.
ON SALE SOON: Sports Illustrated's Fantasy Football 2011 issue tells you where all the free agents landed and what their fantasy impact will be, along with the critical draft strategy and statistical analysis you need to win your league. Available in mid-August.
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