KICKERS MAY BE LATE-ROUND ASSETS IN FANTASY DRAFTS, BUT THAT DOESN'T MEAN THEY'RE ALL CREATED EQUAL. THE LIST OF ELITE KICKING PROSPECTS in fantasyland is as exclusive as the one at quarterback or receiver. In the last few years the top-shelf kickers—Nate Kaeding, David Akers, Ryan Longwell, Stephen Gostkowski, Rob Bironas and Mason Crosby—have consistently separated themselves from the pack. But there's a new kicker on the verge of earning entrance into this exclusive club, even without the benefit of a full season's work: the Saints' Garrett Hartley.
To the fantasy neophyte, few things immediately stand out about Hartley. Yes, he kicked the game-winning field goal in the NFC Championship Game, sending the Saints to their first Super Bowl. But just four weeks earlier he missed a potentially season-killing field goal against Tampa Bay in Week 16. He also has the fantasy misfortune of playing for an offense that wastes few touchdown opportunities in the red zone. (The Saints ranked sixth in red zone touchdown efficiency last year, at 57.7%.)
So, why should Hartley be a coveted commodity in drafts this year? For starters, he's blessed with one of the NFL's strongest kicking legs. Every week during warmups, "I tell coach [Sean Payton], 'If we get to the 37- or 38-yard line,' which would be a 55-yarder, 'let's do it,' " says Hartley. He's the only kicker in league history to make three field goals of 40-plus yards in a Super Bowl. His per-game average of 1.8 field goals was fifth among all kickers in '09, and he played for the NFL's highest-scoring team (31.9), which led to 5.7 kicking opportunities (field goal or extra-point attempts) every Sunday.
If that's not enough to persuade fantasy owners to prioritize Hartley, it's important to note that the Saints have a minimum of 14 ideal-weather or indoor games in 2010, with late-season trips to Cincinnati and Baltimore as the only bad-weather possibilities. And at age 24, Hartley likely stands as the NFL's best under-25 kicker option for multiyear keeper leagues.
To be fair, it's also important to note that Hartley has yet to play a full NFL season. Waived by the Broncos before the start of training camp in his rookie season of '08, he missed the first eight games until the Saints signed him in late October to be their full-time kicker. Then last year he was suspended for the first four games after testing positive for a banned stimulant and did not overtake veteran John Carney for the job until early December. In Hartley's first game back he made four of five field goals, including one in overtime to help New Orleans keep its unbeaten record intact with a 33-30 victory at Washington.
For those who still have doubts about Hartley, consider this stat: Including the playoffs, he has been the Saints' kicker for 16 games, or the equivalent of one full season. In those games he has made 27 field goals and 50 extra points for a total of 131 points, which would have ranked him fourth among kickers last year. While most fantasy owners won't even consider taking a kicker until the final round of a draft, Hartley has the kind of upside that could make him the rare kicker who is worth selecting one round earlier.