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2016 Fantasy Football Preview: Kickers and Defenses

Who should you draft for your kicker and defense in fantasy football this year. And more importantly, when should you draft them?

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

In the latest installment of the Fantasy Football Insider, brought to you by Cincy Jungle’s very own Orange and Black Insider podcast, we take a look at defenses and kickers and when should you draft them, and why. Keep up with the podcast on Twitter @BengalsOBI or download it directly on iTunes!

Fantasy Football Defenses

Over the last eight seasons, the difference between the top fantasy defense and the 12th defense has averaged 40 points, and as many as 58 points, over the course of the season. That’s a pretty substantial drop, especially, when you figure that the drop from the sixth best fantasy defense to the 12th best is less than 9 points, on average. (Most leagues have 12 teams, so we look at the 12th best as the worst ‘starting’ defense, or replacement level)

Since a top fantasy defense can make such a huge difference, every year you have one or two people in your league who will grab a defense in the 7th or 8th round, nabbing last year’s top unit, hoping to get that difference making defense.

Is their strategy prudent? Does it make sense to grab the top defenses from last year, when a top unit can make such a big difference?

In short, no.

In long, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

Why? For that, let’s look at year over year changes in fantasy defenses.

We will look at the difference from 2008 to 2009, from 2009 to 2010 and so forth, up to the most recent 2014 to 2015 change.

From one year to the next, only 41% of teams in the top 10 stay in the top 10 the following season. 77% of teams in the top 10 finished worse the next season.

On average, the #1 overall defense drops to an average ranking of about the 10th best defense the following season. And the #2 fantasy defense on average drops from #2 overall to #13 overall, completely out of the top 12, and therefore undraftable.

Why is there such volatility?

Because fantasy defenses are carried by defensive touchdowns, which are very sporadic by nature.

Cincinnati Bengals v Philadelphia Eagles
Defensive Touchdowns carry an FFL Defense
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The top five defensive teams each year will score 52% more touchdowns than the defenses ranked 6~10, but only average 17% more turnovers, and only 1% more sacks. It is that difference in defensive touchdowns that is carrying those top defenses each season, which is why a top fantasy defense will generate 30%~40% of their points from defensive touchdowns, while your lower scoring fantasy defenses are only getting 10%~20% of their points from defensive touchdowns.

Your odds of selecting a good fantasy defense in the last round of your draft will not be much different than that person in your league who uses a mid-round pick on last year’s top group.

Use your picks wisely. Last year we saw great running backs like Jamaal Charles, Arian Foster and Le’Veon Bell go down with injuries, plus other high picks like Eddie Lacy, Jeremy Hill, and C.J. Anderson fail to live up to their FFL draft hype. Using your mid-round picks on RB or WR depth will generally bring you more value than using them to reach for last year’s top defense.

Fantasy Football Kickers

Going back the past seven or eight seasons, the difference between the top fantasy kicker and the 12th defense has averaged 33 points per season, while the drop from the sixth best kicker to the 12th best kicker is only 12 points per season. So there is something to be gained by having the top kicker vs the rest of the field, but it’s not as drastic as holding the top defense vs the rest of the field.

Even though it’s quite a challenge to predict how many field goal attempts a kicker will have, kickers are easier to project than defenses, who are highly dependent on fluky defensive touchdowns.

On average, over the last seven years, kickers score about 1.7 points per kick attempt (either field goal attempt or field goal attempt). Therefore, the more kick attempts a kicker gets, the more points he’s going to generate.

Generally, the better a team is at moving the ball, the more likely they are to get into field goal range, or score a touchdown. And this means more attempts for the kicker. So a good rule of thumb is to take a kicker for a team who is good at moving the football, as your top 10 or 12 kickers will typically come from the top 10 or 12 offenses that are most proficient at moving the football.

NFL: AFC Championship-New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
FFL Kickers
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Field goal accuracy plays a part, too, as it’s good for a kicker to make the kicks when given the opportunity. But consider that the average field goal accuracy for the top scoring FFL kickers is pretty negligible:

  • Top 5 FFL scoring kickers over the last seven seasons: 87% field goal accuracy
  • Next 5 kickers: 86%
  • Next 5 kickers: 85%

So there is a trend, but the difference is very minor. The most accurate field goal kicker among the top FFL kickers has not finished first or second, and averages as the sixth overall kicker in FFL. So yeah, accurate is better than not accurate, but not directly connected to being the top FFL kicker.

Ultimately look for a kicker who plays for a team with an offense that you expect to move the ball well.