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Kicker Corner

Week 1 Kickers: Good As Gould

by Denny Carter
Updated On: September 2, 2021, 11:36 am ET

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Kicker enthusiasts have, at long last, taken their movement above ground. 

We’ll no longer be cowed by those desperate to boot the kicker spot from fantasy football lineups. We’ll be silent no longer when fantasy managers erroneously say kicker is unpredictable, a maddening roll of the dice we can’t possibly project with any accuracy. We will yell: Erroneous! 

These folks -- the rabid anti-kicker activists among us -- have probably been chasing the wrong factors in determining which kicker should get the nod in their starting lineups. Probably they think accuracy matters (it doesn’t). Maybe they even think field goal distance matters (it doesn’t). 

The only thing that matters in spotting a worthwhile kicker play is opportunity. In this space, we’ll target kickers who meet most -- sometimes all -- of the following criteria. 

-Their team is favored
-Their team has a high implied total
-They are playing at home
-Their team isn’t ultra-aggressive on fourth downs in field goal territory 

Does this mean we’ll never play a kicker whose team is a one or two point underdog, or one whose team is on the road? No. Of course we’ll sometimes target guys who don’t fit the process perfectly, just as we play quarterbacks and tight ends and defenses that don’t satisfy every conceivable part of the perfect process. 

Kickers are as predictable as (almost) any other position in fantasy football. I know this could spur riots in the streets, but it must be said. Let them riot. We want kickers who could benefit from neutral and positive game script, usually -- but not always -- in a high-scoring environment. I’ve consulted rocket scientists and they have confirmed choosing a kicker in fantasy football is not rocket science. 

Plug-and-play starters

Who, you ask with spittle on your lips, would I start over the below streaming options? You want to know. You need to know. It’s a good question -- one that can eliminate the need to read excruciating kicker matchup analysis. Here are the guys I’d start if I rostered them in redraft. 

Tyler Bass: Buffalo is a six-point home favorite in a game featuring the week’s fourth highest over/under. This Bills-Steelers throwdown features two high-powered offenses -- you’re going to want guys on both sides, including last year’s third highest scoring kicker, Bass. 

Harrison Butker: Kansas City is a six-point home favorite against Cleveland. KC was nearly eight field goal tries below expectation in 2020. Butker had a miserable year and still finished as a top-11 fantasy option. You’re playing him if you have him. 

Justin Tucker: I’m on the record saying Tucker’s days of elite fantasy production are over, not because he’s reached the age of decline or has the yips, but because Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson-led offense is too aggressive for Tucker to get the opportunity he had in the Flacco era. Tuckers’ two lowest field goal attempt totals have come over Jackson’s two years as the team’s starter. His Week 1 matchup is mouth watering though. Baltimore is a 4.5-point road favorite against the Raiders in a game with the week’s third highest total. Jackson and the Ravens offense should move the ball at will against a toothless Vegas defense. 

Younghoe Koo: Everyone’s 2020 waiver wire darling starts the 2021 season in a superb spot: At home with his team favored by 3.5 points against what should be a bad Eagles team. My one hesitation with Koo is Atlanta head coach Arthur Smith’s penchant for aggressive play calling in the red zone. Smith enjoys touchdowns, unfortunately for Koo. Smith’s Titans offense was second best in red zone touchdown scoring last year -- severely limiting the team’s field goal tries. The Titans had the tenth fewest field goal attempts in 2020 and the second fewest in 2019. Koo is fine -- for now.

As for Jason Sanders, the No. 1 kicker in fantasy football last year, fantasy managers might as well play him if they prioritized Sanders and drafted him in seasonal leagues.

Sanders' Week 1 matchup isn't great: Miami is a two-point road underdog against a Patriots team bound and determined to hammer their opponents into submission via the run. If the Mac Jones-led Pats do just that, they'll shorten the game and likely limit the Dolphins' possessions. It's not the best formula for kicker opportunity. I'd start almost any streamer over Sanders in Week 1. 

Folks have asked about Mason Crosby's Week 1 viability too. Everything seemingly aligns with the process -- Green Bay is a three-point favorite over New Orleans in a game with a 50.5-point total.

But none of the conventional methods for identifying a solid kicker option applied to Crosby and the Packers in 2020. Aaron Rodgers and the team's offense massacred opposing defenses throughout the season and Crosby ended up with 16 field goal tries, the lowest in the league. The Packers were by far and away the most aggressive team on fourth downs in field goal range, settling for three points on just 35.7 percent of their fourth downs inside the 33 yard line. Crosby's opportunity will be squashed if that continues in 2021. 

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Week 1 streamers 

Robbie Gould (SF) vs. DET

More and more are saying Gould could hardly be in a better spot to start the season. The Niners are 7.5-point road favorites against what will likely be a hapless Lions team. Kyle Shanahan’s team sports an implied total of 26.5, among the highest of Week 1. 

Gould notched a hefty 2.33 field goal attempts in six 49ers wins last year, a far cry from the one field goal try he averaged in ten losses. It was a similar story in 2019: Gould averaged 2.37 field goal attempts in Niners victories. The aged one hasn’t been very good since the start of the 2019 season, missing 12 of his 54 attempts. That doesn’t matter though. We want opportunity, and it’s tough to find a kicker with an easier path to opportunity than Gould in Week 1. 
Gould is an ideal candidate to become an every-week starter in 12-team leagues if the 49ers avoid the injuries they suffered in 2020 and maintain friendly game script for their kicker. This will likely require a Trey Lance takeover sooner rather than later. 

Greg Joseph (MIN) at CIN

Recommending Minnesota kickers means I have to live and die with Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, who seems to will his kickers to miss. Zimmer, like many fantasy managers, hates kickers. Watch his face twist in pain as Joseph trots out for a kick in Week 1. It’s almost majestic. 

Joseph won the team’s kicker competition by default when undrafted rookie Riley Patterson went down with an injury during training camp. Joseph -- who most recently made 17 of 20 field goal tries and 25 of 29 extra points for the Browns in 2018 -- fits our process almost as well as Gould. The Vikings head into opening day as 3.5-point road favorites, facing a toothless Bengals defense that allowed the fifth most field goal attempts in 2020. 

The Vikings-Bengals matchup has all the makings of a shootout if Joe Burrow is right and if Kirk Cousins and the rest of the Vikings can avoid the novel coronavirus in the days before Week 1 kickoff. Minnesota’s offense should have little trouble matriculating the ball down the field, opening up potential opportunity for Joseph. 

Bengals rookie kicker Evan McPherson, who’s expected to emerge from an elongated competition with Austin Seibert, is a halfway-decent option here if one believes the Bengals will keep it close. McPherson is at home in a game with the week’s fourth highest total (48). It wasn’t all that long ago when Joe Burrow’s Bengals offense turned Randy Bullock into a top-end fantasy kicker. You could do worse than the rookie in Week 1. 

Matt Gay (LAR) vs. CHI

Gay will have every chance to be a no-brainer fantasy start in 2021 if Matthew Stafford improves LA’s offense the way we hope he does. It starts in Week 1. 

Bears head coach Matt Nagy’s insistence on fulfilling his promise to start Andy Dalton against a ferocious Rams defense is a decidedly positive development for Gay. Game script should be very much on his side in this one, as the Rams are seven-point home favorites playing before fans for the first time in their gargantuan new stadium. Chicago is a year removed from allowing the eighth most field goal attempts. The matchup is an ideal one for Gay. 

Brandon McManus (DEN) at NYG

Yet another road kicker in this column. Curious, you might say. It is indeed curious. 

I can’t ignore the matchup for McManus, the big-footed kicker whose team allows him to rip from anywhere inside 70 yards. The Broncos are 1.5-point road favorites in Week 1 with a meager total of 22 points. Nevertheless! Big Blue allowed the sixth most field goal attempts in 2020 and the Broncos are one of the league’s most conservative teams on fourth down. 

Teddy Bridgewater starting for Denver should make us more confident in McManus. Ole’ Teddy can manage the hell out of a game, ensuring things don’t go haywire. The Broncos can then do what they love to do: Kick field goals. Denver last season attempted field goals on 88.2 percent of their fourth downs in field goal range; only six teams had a higher rate. They attempted the sixth most field goals while winning five games. Science said it couldn't be done. Vic Fangio proved science wrong. 

In 2020, McManus logged 2.44 field goal tries in five Denver wins and a remarkable 2.2 attempts in losses. He’s a solid if unspectacular Week 1 option against New York. 

Matt Prater (ARI) at TEN

I’d tout Titans kicker Sam Ficken if Tennessee had proven more amenable to settling for field goals in the red zone. They have not, leaving Titans kickers without the kind of opportunity we need. Last year, the Titans had the 12th fewest field goal tries. In 2019, they had the second fewest. It’s been bleak. 

Instead, we’re turning our focus to Prater, who escaped Detroit for arid Arizona and should benefit from a Cardinals offense that churns out offensive yardage week in and week out. 

We’re two years removed from the Cards attempting 2.6 field goals in wins and 1.7 in losses (that’s a high number for losses). In 2020, before the team parted ways with Zane Gonzalez, he averaged 2.66 field goal attempts in wins and one try in losses. Yes, Arizona is a three-point dog on the road in Week 1. The environment is tempting though: Only the Bucs-Cowboys game has a higher total and only six teams have a higher implied total than the Cardinals (24.25).

I’ve touted Prater for months as a viable late-round target in redraft leagues once the game’s top kicker options are off the board. While his Week 1 situation could hew a little closer to our ideal process, I’m not dismissing him. Gould, I believe, is a superior Week 1 play. 

​​Ryan Santoso (CAR) vs. NYJ

What would a Week 1 kicker column be without good-faith touting of a guy who’s bounced around the NFL and the CFL, having never attempted a field goal in any professional league? 

Santoso incredibly beat out Joey Slye for Carolina’s starting gig this summer. Two seasons of highly erratic kicking surely didn’t help Slye’s cause, and Santoso was reportedly consistent throughout training camp. The journeyman made both of his field goal tries in the team’s final preseason tilt against Pittsburgh. Slye missed his only attempt against the Steelers. 

Now Santoso gets an ideal environment with the Panthers at home, favored by four points over an injury-wrecked and generally terrible Jets defense. It’s hard to conceive of a scenario in which the Panthers are drummed into negative game script here. Sam Darnold and his excellent cast of pass catchers should have few problems moving the ball against his former mates. Santoso could be a major beneficiary.